Is it still possible to achieve the American dream? At what cost? Fifty miles from Los Angeles, in the middle of a stark, Dali-esque desert, real estate developers have created Antelope Valley, an instant community of dream homes for postmodern pioneers in searchof the good life. In Home Economics, suburban home owners talk candidly about the complex realities of trying to live the American dream in the nineties.
Billboards along the freeway leading to Antelope Valley advertise new homes with slogans like “distinctive family living,” “California Traditions,” and “American Heritage,” evoking the importance of home ownership and family values ina disorienting age of impermanence. “On the drive up, I remember telling my husband, ‘Just don’t get any bright ideas because I won’t live in the desert,’ ” recalls Vicky Ivanov, sitting on the wall-to-wall carpet in her sparsely furnished living room. But one look at the clean streets lined with ready-made mansions, and Vicky and her husband were sold. “We saw the houses and they were so big and so pretty. It was past what wethought we could ever get. Everything looked just perfect, you know, like a dream…like a dream house.”
Drawn to this remote desert outpost by visions of a better life, new residents are eager to exchange the smog and congestion of Los Angeles for affordable, seemingly idyllic communities centeredon family and home. “For me it’s exciting to get out and dig around in the dirt,” Ivanov says of working in her new garden. “It’s my rose and I can put it where want to put it. That’s what I like about owning a house.” But the homeowners also face a cruel paradox: the three to four hour round-trip commute leaves them little time to enjoy their new surroundings. Unable to spend much time at home, some Antelope Valley residents find themselves questioning the importance of home ownership and their ideas of success, family and the good life. Others seek comfort by surrounding themselves with frontier-style furnishings, reminders of America’s prairie ideals. “I prize tradition and permanence, things that you are proud to talk aboutof your past, which I don’t have a lot of,” says Kelly Killen, a divorced mother who has filled her modern home with refinished antiques, potent symbols of a less transient age. “It’s not the age of things, it’s the values that they remind me of that I like,” she explains. “I work hard refinishing this table or that cabinet and looking after things carefully, because I want to pass them on to my daughter. I feel I am starting that type of value with her.”
When Jenny Cool, an American raised in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Hawaii, first visited her brother in his new home in Antelope Valley, she was amazed. “It took about four hours to get home from the airport. I’ve lived all over the world, but this seemed strange, this driving need to your own home no matter the cost. I made this film because I needed to learn about the motivations, the human wants and cares, behind suburbia. “With an insider’s compassion and an outsider’s eye, Home Economics examines life in the new suburbia through frank conversationswith residents of Antelope Valley. “I think it’s really eaten away at my relationship with my husband,” says Vicky Ivanov of the grueling commute. “I think all relationships need work, but when you don’t have own time to work on the relationship…the result has been very, very devastating on our marriage and it’s sad. I think to own a house, that’s a high price. Too high.”
Even as their parents struggle to create a safe haven in a dangerous world, the younger generation plots its escape. “When people do speeches in class, the teachers always ask us ‘Oh, what areyour goals?’ and everyone is like, ‘I got to get out of the Antelope Valley,’ ” exclaims Ivanov’s teenage daughter Harmoni Hutton. “My main goal is just to get out of here! I don’t knowanyone who wants to stay here for the rest of his life.”
Home Economics, a primer on the shifting definition of the American Dream at the end of the twentieth century, was produced, directed, shot, and edited by Jenny Cool. Urban anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, PhD has called it a sensitive portrayal of “the deep human costs of the automobilization and suburbanization of U.S. culture.”