There’s an old song called “Behind Closed Doors” which seems to have been performed by nearly every country star. I can’t really remember much of anything about the song, except a line from the chorus: “What goes on behind closed doors”. That one line kept popping into my brain while I was watching the DVD of The Chumscrubber from DreamWorks SKG Films.
The Chumscrubber is set in one of those beautiful to look at, but rotten to the core, suburbs that have become such fodder for films and T.V. in recent years. American Beauty springs to mind as the first in the line of recent depictions of dysfunctional dwellings outside the downtown core, that has culminated in the cat fight that is Desperate Housewives.
No matter if they are satire or soap, they are all tilling the fertile ground that Peyton Place first harvested of life behind the closed doors of “the little boxes made of ticky-tacky”. With such vast amounts of celluloid having been devoted to the subject already, you would think that there would be little or nothing new left to say on the matter.
But as The Chumscrubber proves, what makes the suburbs so attractive is there’s always a new way to shoot an old story. Although there have been other movies made about dysfunction and teenage alienation within this context, this stands head and shoulders above the rest. Director Arie Posin and writer Zac Stanford have taken the shop worn clichés that clutter these movies and managed to make them new and original.
There’s our hero Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell with such a convincing American accent I didn’t recognise him as the kid from Billy Elliot), who can’t get anyone to listen to him. Even when he finds the body of his best friend swinging from the rafters, the most he gets from his pop psychologist father is perhaps a chapter in his next book and more pills.
Troy, the boy who hung himself, provided a service to the adolescent community by keeping them supplied with happy pills. With his death a lot of people are looking at suffering some severe withdrawal. Finding Troy’s stash becomes key for the trio of kids who passed them out amongst the population.
When Dean refuses to be induced by the female member, Crystal (Camilla Belle) the other two, Billy (Justin Chatwin) and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), decide that where persuasion won’t work, coercion just might. In an attempt to prove out this theory they decide to kidnap his younger brother. As far as they’re concerned snatching the wrong kid, Charlie Bratley (Thomas Curtis) instead of Charlie Stiffle (Rory Culkin), is only a minor inconvenience.
Meanwhile back in the adults’ world, things aren’t going so smoothly either. The wedding of uber designer Terry Bratley (Rita Wilson) and Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes) and Troy’s memorial service are scheduled to run at the same time across the street from each other. Troy’s mom (Glen Close) is busy telling all and sundry that she doesn’t blame them for his suicide.
Dean’s parents, occupy a world in which neither of their children really exists. Mom (Allison Janney) sells lifestyle choices (vitamins) over the phone and prepares massive breakfasts in an attempt to create family moments. Dad, the afore mentioned pop psychologist (William Fichtner), when not detailing his family’s inner workings for his latest book, prepares for his next book tour.
The two separate worlds of parents and children orbit around each other like a moon around a planet. Very rarely do their paths intersect, and when they do, the needs of the parents eclipse the activities of the children. Oblivious to the point of blindness, the parents have no idea what their children are up to or even where they are.
It takes Terry almost two days to realize her son Charlie isn’t at home locked up in his bedroom sulking over her impending marriage. When Crystal comes to seek Dean’s help with freeing Charlie from Billy and Lee’s clutches she sums up the whole situation with the words: “You’re the only one who cares”
It’s true; for all his pretence of not caring for anything, Dean is the only one who even attempts to think beyond his own needs. He ends up being the only person who acts remotely like an adult. While the parents wallow in their self-indulgence, ignoring him when he tries to tell them what’s going on under their very noses, he takes up the slack.
Not only does he rescue Charlie, he’s the one who manages to let Troy’s mother finally grieve for her son. In a wonderful scene between Jamie Bell and Glenn Close at the memorial service Dean tells her about the son she didn’t know.
He’s the only one who understands the guilt she feels over Troy’s death because he feels it just as badly. With just the two of them looking at a picture of Troy, and Glenn Close wearing the beatific smile of a person finally freed to grieve, the movie’s two planets are briefly in conjunction.
What makes this movie work so well is the quality of the direction and the acting. Not once does an actor do anything but play their part straight. No matter how ridiculous or surreal the action may seem, nothing is ever played for laughs. It’s that sincerity, that depth of believability in the performances, that gives the satire in this movie its bite.
Unlike previous satires about life in the suburbs, The Chumscrubber gives equal time to the two separate worlds of adolescence and adult hood. Without parents to provide nurturing and guidance the children have turned to pharmaceuticals for their comfort. Sucking at the teat of Ritalin is a poor substitute for a parent’s concern but when you’re lost and confused you take succour where you can find it.
In one final nod to reality there is no real happy ending to The Chumscrubber. The adults don’t grow up, they continue on with their lives oblivious to their children. Salvation comes for Crystal and Dean in the shape of escaping into each other’s company, their own private planet where people care about each other.
Throughout the movie we see various people playing a video game called The Chumscrubber. In a post nuclear holocaust world a teenager survives, only to have his head fall off. Somehow he must continue to make his way in a world gone mad, even though he’s lost his head. Although not the subtlest of analogies for the events depicted, does help to make it clear how confusing the world is when viewed through the eyes of a teenager incapable of coping any more.
This movie should serve as an antidote to all those people who ever thought, for some strange reason; they would like to be a teenager again. After seeing The Chumscrubber you’ll just feel grateful to have survived adolescence more or less intact and to have escaped into the carefree days of adult hood. Who needs all that responsibility?
The Chumscrubber will be in stores on January 10 and come with the usual special features: making of featurette, commentary by Director and writer, and deleted footage.