Chumscrubber (2005): Tale of Suburban Malaise, Starring Jamie Bell and Glenn Close

“The Chumscrubber” has the misfortune of being released at a time when the public is saturated with anatomies of American suburban malaises in both indie and mainstream cinema. Thus, some critics might dismiss Arie Posin’s new serio-comedy as “American Beauty” meets “Donnie Darko.”

Though the tale is for the most part familiar from other pictures, it still has a number of interesting elements, such as the depiction of drug culture and its handling of death. And you can not deny the appeal of the likable  ensemble cast that includes Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, Glenn Close, Rory Culkin, William Fichtner, Ralph Fiennes, John Heard, Lauren Holly, Allison Janney, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lou Taylor Pucci, and Rita Wilson.

When Dean Stiffle (“Billy Elliott”‘s Jamie Bell) discovers the body of his best friend, Troy (Josh Janowicz), hanging in his bedroom, he doesn’t bother to tell his parents,
figuring they wouldn’t care. Showing no outward signs of remorse, he keeps it to himself. He shrugs his way through high school wearing a psychic cloak of invisibility.

His family lives in a postcard-perfect California neighborhood. Dean’s father, Dr. Bill Stiffle, (William Fichtner) is the author of best-selling pop psychology books with titles such as “The Happy Accident,” and he treats his son with all the affection of a lab rat. In one of many confrontational scenes, Dean deadpans, “Dad, if you write about me again in one of your stupid books, I’m going to kill you.”

The suicide of Troy, the school’s leading drug dealer, during one of his mother’s pool parties, throws the community’s carefully maintained but fake balance into disarray, though nothing is done about it.

At school, in an effort to get their hands on Troy’s stash, Dean’s classmates Billy (Justin Chatwin), Crystal (Camilla Belle), and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci) plot a kidnapping scheme: they’ll abduct Dean’s younger brother, Charlie (Rory Culkin), and hold him for ransom in exchange for Dean retrieving Troy’s pills.

Unfortunately, the hapless gang kidnaps the wrong boy, instead snatching Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis), the son of divorced parents: Police officer Lou Bratley (John Heard), and interior decorator Terri (Rita Wilson). Charley’s disappearance goes unnoticed by his mother, who is too consumed with the planning of her elaborate second wedding to the town mayor, Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), to realize her son has gone missing.

As these characters careen through their white-picket-fence world, each pursues some dream or ideal they believe will make them happybe it prescription or illicit drugs, vitamin supplements, the perfect body, a fairy tale wedding, self-help books, or New Age mysticism.

The kids and adults of Hillside live their lives entirely separately, like two opposing camps, a mournful divide played out in a visual scheme of sun-dappled, hallucinatory realism. “Don’t ignore me,” the characters repeatedly say to one another, and that echoing line of dialoguethat pleabecomes a mantra in a film about the increasingly deep American disconnection, be it along generational, familial, or cultural lines.

As the teens play out their botched kidnapping, Troy’s devastated mother (Glenn Close) plans a memorial service, and Terri and Michael prepare for their wedding. The parallel story strands converge in the film’s satisfying culmination.

Only one character, Mayor Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), holds steadfast to the conviction that everything connects. After suffering a freak head injury, Mayor Ebbs comes to believe that something truly profound is scattered beneath the surface of suburban banality, a belief borne out in the tale’s hard-won conclusion.

Parents and teens always misunderstand and mistrust each other, but suburbia seems to intensify the generation gap, make it worse. Adults and kids live there in separate but parallel worlds. The parents see their world one way, the kids another. Whereas the parent believe that they live in a seemingly “perfect” neighborhood, laid out according to a “master plan,” believed to be paradise, the children only see the negative qualities of suburbia: the numbing repetition of homes, designs and patterns; the lack of individuality, the lack of originality.

The two parallel worlds also prevail within the homes too. Beneath the surface
sheen, behind the wide smiles, every house holds secrets of loneliness, insecurity, egotism, depression, and pain. Every family holds some truth that nobody liked to talk about, something they wished to deny, ignore, or repress.

The great divide extends to the realm of communication as well. How do you talk
to someone when your experience of the world is so different How much worse is it when you can’t talk about the things that cause you the most pain and discomfort Dean’s dilemma is to decide whether, how, and when he’s going bridge or negotiate these two worlds, which makes “The Chumscrubber” yet another variation of a classic American coming-age-tale.

The fractured and fractious quality of life in American suburbia is rendered with detailed precision, but we have seen it before, in better pictures. And there other movieish reference that will irritate discerning critics. Dean is a character whose very name invokes the entire history of troubled teenage movie outsiders, from James Dean “Rebel Without A Cause” to Christian Slater’s J.D. in “Heathers.”

Then there’s the resemblance to the far superior suburban anatomy, “Donnie Darko,” in the element of the Chumscrubber, a totemic pop culture presence that prowls his own post-apocalyptic landscape. Peopled with subhuman demons and freaks, the ubiquitous Chumscrubber bubbles up in TV cartoons, violent video games, posters and T-shirts, stickers and rearview mirrors. Is the Chumbscrubber icon an embodiment of teen rage A manifestation of the town’s repression A shadow vision of its collective unconscious Probably all of the above, though it’s open to subjective interpretation by the viewers.

Posin claims that he didn’t want The Chumscrubber’ to be a movie about teenagers, but a movie that show the world from teenagers’ point of view. Indeed, he and screenwriter Zac Stanford are more generous toward their youthful characters, investing each one of them with some empathy, ambiguity, and complexity. Risking plausibility, Posin embraces completely the point of view of its youthful characters, at the expense of their adult counterparts, who come across as caricatures or one-dimensional figures.

Despite the large gallery of characters, the film is not richly layered and it’s also not sufficiently provocative in its themes and issues, most of which have been depicted with greater depth in other suburban films. Straining to maintain a tonal balance of comedy and drama, “The Chumbscrubber” aims to be a surreal cautionary tale, but it comes across as a conventional tale about an alienated youth forced to confront a widening gap between parents and teenagers.

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