The art of the suburban-culture film has become paint-by-numbers filmmaking. Throw in some insane characters, medication and a little violence, and…voila, it’s a dark and profound satire on the absurdity of modern life. For all its consummate craft and self importance, “The Chumscrubber” is just another of these standard takes on American living, with a few great moments and many awkward ones. Its observations on suburbia aren’t new, and some of its supporting characters are broad caricatures, spoiling what some scenes suggest could have been a great film.
The film exists in a landscape of similar houses, adults who don’t communicate with their children and high school students who medicate themselves with antidepressant pills to become numb to the outside world. Jamie Bell plays Dean, who goes to his best—and only—friend Troy’s house and finds him dead by hanging himself. Troy was the school’s bulk drug supplier, and all the kids are freaked at the thought of not having access to their happy pills. Three kids with varying levels of sociopathic insanity who deal the pills can’t get Dean to sneak into Troy’s old room and get the rest of the drugs, so they decide to kidnap Dean’s brother. But they accidentally kidnap another kid instead, and the kid doesn’t mind being driven around and fed. The initially comic kidnapping eventually takes on a darker dimension, however, as they still hold the kid and threaten to hurt him if Dean doesn’t do anything about it. Dean tries to figure out how to get the boy released while the film’s recurring theme critiques the lack of communication between parents and their children. Meanwhile, the adults play in a series of stories meant to show how shallow all of them are.
The title comes from the film’s metaphorical pop-culture icon, a headless teen surviving in an insane world destroyed by nuclear weapons. All the video games, comics, posters and TV shows in the film contain this fictional icon, whose show is a cheap, 3-D computer-animated program with the ruins of suburban houses, which are also shown in the film’s opening sequence, landing on the desert and then turning into live-action houses. The whole teen who’s lost his head metaphor is a bit obnoxious, and the narration and show excerpt come off as masturbatory rather than an integral part of the work.
The film’s saving grace is the acting, which includes a poignant closing scene between Bell and Glenn Close. The cast of both young and adult actors is full of talented individuals who give the work much more sincerity than most of it deserves. Troy’s grieving mother (Close) deals with her depression and the lack of community sympathy by telling everyone that she doesn’t blame them for her sons death in a series of inane speeches to make them feel guilty. These scenes are incredibly over the top, and must have seemed cleverer on the page than they do played out. On the screen, “The Chumscrubber” is a series of pretentious social commentary punctuated by windows of excellence that only make it more frustrating.