Okay, now I'm convinced that many of the critics whose reviews count over at Rotten Tomatoes are secretly Pod People. That's the only way I can think of to explain how The Chumscrubber has a 32% rating over there, while Broken Flowers has an 87%. I saw both of these movies, and I'll tell you right now, one of them? Not nearly as great as its been touted to be. And the other? Much, much better than a lot of critics are giving it credit for.
The Chumscrubber is not your typical teen film. It tackles complex social issues without being condescending; it somehow manages to walk the line between drama and dark satiric comedy without being trite, cutesy, or quirky for the sake of quirkiness (an annoying trend which I'm seeing more and more with indie films lately).
This was a fabulously layered movie about the isolating loneliness of a self-medicated society, a world where everyone walks around in a solipsitic bubble, lightly bumping into each other rather than really interacting. On the surface, The Chumscrubber might appear to be just your average indie satire of suburban society, but there is much more to this movie than that.
Dean (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell, in a moving and textured performance) lives in Hillside, a Stepford-ish suburb that looks a lot like the neighborhoods in The Poltergeist and ET. Dean's father, Dr. Bill Stiffle (William Fitchter), has several popular self-help books out (the most recent is called "The Happy Accident"), and views Dean more as an interesting test case than a son. Dean's brother, Charlie (Rory Culkin) spends most of his time immersed in a video game, while their mother (West Wing's Allison Janney) obsessively sells "life changing" vitamins and their father preens in the mirror practicing his warm, professional smile for his book signings.
When Dean finds his friend Troy hanging dead in his poolhouse room while Troy's parents host a pool party, Dean leaves without telling anyone Troy is dead. Troy was the drug-dealing king of Hillside High, dispensing the pills that helped the students make it through their lives. And yes - this film could have been set in rural America, or the ghettos of LA or New York, but what this film is really exploring is how these families, who seem to be living the American dream of wealth and suburban utopia, are so caught up in their busy schedules and social lives and self-absorbed concerns, that their kids - who seem to have "everything" - are lost and floundering in a sea of desperate aloneness, pretense, and false emotions.
Dean ends up entangled with the antisocial Billy (Justin Chatwin), a drug dealer who worked for Troy and who wants Troy's stash of pills - now. Billy enlists his girlfriend, Crystal Falls (Camilla Belle), and friend Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), a smart kid playing tough guy, to help him strong-arm Dean into getting the pills. When Dean refuses to get the drugs for them, they decide to kidnap Dean's brother, Charlie, but instead end up abducting another Charley - Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis), son of a local design maven, Terri Bratley (Rita Wilson, in a great turn), who is getting married to Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes) in two days.
Even when the teens and adults talk to each other, no one is really listening - or else, they hear only what they want to hear, and filter out the rest. Billy, Crystal and Lee tell several adults they've kidnapped Charley; all the adults just respond with this air of, "Isn't that cute, would you kids like a snack?" nonchalance. When the kids want to bypass rare adult inquisitiveness, they use the fool-proof, "It's about school", which works like a "get out of jail free" pass.
Charley's mother is so completely and frantically absorbed in her wedding plans, she doesn't even realize her own son is missing - she just assumes he's holed up in his room because he's upset about her upcoming nuptials. The mayor walks around in a daze, carrying a copy of "The Happy Accident" under his arm, and staying out of his bridezilla's way and meditating on the meaning of life.
The world of The Chumscrubber is an exaggerated and satirized one - but really, not by much. In a world where the Columbine shooters built pipe bombs in their bedrooms, is it really that much of a stretch to imagine that three teens might kidnap a younger kid, and none of the adults would take it seriously? The movie also attacks the issue of people self-medicating their way through life. The adults in this film always have alcohol in their hands. Dean's dad is perpetually giving him pills to "solve his problem". Dean's mom is obsessed with her vitamins. Dean pops pills as if they're breath mints. He insists he's not that upset about Troy's death, but he's so invested in numbing himself that you have to wonder what he's hiding from.
The Chumscrubber engaged me from the opening scene until the end of the credits, played over a bubbly, haunting rendition of "Our House" by Phantom Planet. It had all the elements that make not just a good indie film, but a good film in general - an interesting premise, well-thought story, compelling characters you really care about, a narrative arc and finely drawn individual character arcs. The title is a little weird, sure, but don't let that throw you. It makes sense once you've seen the movie, I promise.
There is some really outstanding acting in this film: Carrie-Ann Moss simmers as a sexy mom who comes onto her daughter's teenage friends (I always think of her as The Matrix's Trinity - who knew she looked so hot in a bikini?); Wilson is tragically self-absorbed as the bride whose biggest concern is that her fiance will leave her; Janney captures the struggle of a woman who doesn't know how to communicate with her kids, and who is searching desperately for something to call her own; Fiennes is spot-on as the middle-aged man searching for a deeper meaning in life than how many sparkling rhinestones his fiance has on her wedding dress.
Glenn Close, as Troy's mom, turns in one of the most eloquent performances of her career as the mother of suicide victim struggling desperately with her own feelings of guilt for not knowing her son - she deserves an Oscar nod for this one, but I doubt the film will get the widespread publicity needed to garner that kind of attention. Her performance alone is reason enough to shell out the ticket price to catch this film.
The film builds in tension as Billy gets more violent and unstable and Lee tries to reach out to his parents for help, only to find they aren't receptive to hearing about problems like kidnapped children in their sterile world; their coldness catapaults their son, "our little man", down a path of violence and tragedy, as he wages war within himself between being the good son and student his parents want, and the bad rebel the increasingly volatile Billy pushes him to be.
The best scene in the movie belongs to Close and Bell, as they finally strip away layers of denial and numbness to reach, together, their real feelings about Troy's death, while the neighborhood around them swirls in a chaos of mourning clothes, wedding clothes, blood and ambulance sirens. It's wrenching, especially if you've ever lost someone in your own life to suicide, to see Troy's mother and his best friend immersed in the private guilt and grief and heartache that follows a death by suicide.
In The Chumscrubber, as in Garden State, which shares the common theme of kids too drugged to feel, Dean eventually tosses aside the drugs his father feeds him and allows himself to really feel his pain and grief and guilt over his best friend's death. This is a compelling subject to tackle in an age where kids are increasingly medicated to control their behavior, especially at school. The film asks the hard question - what are we really teaching our kids about life and emotion, when the adults in their lives, and the kids themselves, are medicated to the point of being walking zombies incapable of feeling.
Does this film really exaggerate that element too much? I don't think so. The kids in this film are not that much different from the teens my oldest daughter knew in high school - many of whom floated through their days, and probably didn't have a sober day, at least by choice, in their four years of high school. Like the kids at my daughter's school, the kids in The Chumscrubber almost see self-medication as a given - early in the film, a student is panicked by a shortage of pills - how can he possibly survive an entire weekend with his father with no drugs to help him through? - and alter or shut off their emotions as casually as they'd change clothes. If you think this isn't reality for a lot of teenagers today, maybe you aren't looking hard enough.
The most heartbreaking thing about The Chumscrubber is how closely it mirrors reality for a lot of families today. Parents with lives so busy they don't know who their kids are; people too busy to bring a casserole to a neighbor whose son committed suicide; people who decide whether to go to a wedding or a funeral based on which one has more in it for them; a woman so immersed in her own wedding plans that she fails to realize her own son has been kidnapped, and who is actually pissed off because her neighbor has the audacity to plan her son's memorial service on the same day as her wedding. All of these things have a sad ring of truth to them, and that's part of what makes this such an honest, if dark, film.
The Chumscrubber is among the best films I've seen all year. Read the reviews all you want, then go see both Broken Flowers and The Chumscrubber, so you can experience each film for yourself. The Chumscrubber deserves to have wide distribution and lots of people watching it and talking about it. It is the kind of anti-mainstream film that we need to see more of.
Will films like The Chumscrubber, or even Broken Flowers, which is a critic's darling, ever be able to challenge a waste of celluloid like The Dukes of Hazzard at the box office? Sadly, probably not. But that is even more of a reason to get out in droves to support films like this. If more folks turned out to support films like this one - films that make you think and mull them over, that don't play to the lowest common denominator - then maybe Hollywood would churn out less drivel.
Hey, a girl can dream.