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Acidic teen's-eye look at 'burbs life

November 11, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

In "The Chumscrubber," Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell) walks into his friend Troy Johnson's (Josh Janowicz) room during one of his mother's parties to find that he's hanged himself. The aggressively jovial Mrs. Johnson (Glenn Close) hasn't discovered the body, and Dean doesn't see the point in alerting her, seeing as she's busy mingling. Later, Dean tells his parents he kept it to himself because he didn't think "you guys would care." His dad jots down some notes and offers him a pill.

At first glance, Arie Posin's debut film, from a screenplay by Zac Stanford, could be mistaken for the secret love child of "Donnie Darko" and "Desperate Housewives." Part caustic satire of boomer parenting, part teen melodrama, part indictment of exurban living, "The Chumscrubber" is easily classifiable as juvenilia despite the age of its director. (Posin is 35.) The son of a dissident Russian filmmaker who moved the family to Israel and Canada before settling in Southern California, Posin retains the outsider's fear of morbid conformity. The movie's mood swings from volatility to glassy-eyed apathy to withering scorn, but the dread it feels for the identical side-by-side bunkers that have become the anxious executive classes' environment of choice is palpable throughout.

Dean lives in Hillside, a sterile, recently erected cluster of faux-Mediterranean villas located somewhere -- or rather nowhere -- in Southern California, the son of a bestselling pop psychologist (William Fichtner) whose tendency to use him as a case study has earned him a reputation as a "psycho," and a stay-at-home mom (Allison Janney) who moonlights as a "Vegeforce" vitamins saleswoman ("They're not just vitamins," she trills on the phone to a potential new sucker, "it's an entirely new lifesystem!"). Dean's parents' obsession with the perfectibility of body and mind is anti-humanist to the point of nihilism: No emotion goes unmedicated, no family interaction unpublished. It's an attitude shared by pretty much every adult in Hillside -- except, that is, for the drunk, the stupid and the brain-damaged. So Dean plods through his life like a zombie, much like "the Chumscrubber," a character from comics and video games, who wanders a post-apocalyptic wasteland with his head tucked under one arm.

School, naturally, serves as both the troubled counterpoint to the "perfect" community and as its training ground. The kids are on drugs, though they tend to favor the kind of prescription pharmaceuticals their parents push on them. Now that Troy, the school's dealer, is gone, a local reprobate named Billy (Justin Chatwin), decides to bully Dean into retrieving the stash. When Dean refuses, Billy and his sidekicks, Crystal (Camilla Belle), a reluctant teen moll with an inappropriately youth-identified mom, and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), an over-pressured mama's boy on the verge of snapping, decide to kidnap Dean's brother for the drug ransom.

Not surprisingly, they nab the wrong kid. Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis) -- as opposed to Charlie Stiffle (Rory Culkin) -- is the son of the dim-bulb Officer Bratley (John Heard) and the ambitious Terri (Rita Wilson). An interior decorator who is days away from marrying the mayor, Mike Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), who has recently suffered a head injury that has led him to some sort of blissed-out, dolphin-based mysticism, Terri is too caught up in her wedding plans to notice that her son is missing, even after Dean shows up to tell her. Later, fearing for Charley's safety, Dean tries to confess the situation to the officer and is cut off halfway through uttering the kid's name.

Every adult in the movie is a caricature: Close, Janney and Wilson are compendiums of such broad, unattractive traits they make the ladies of "Desperate Housewives" look complex. The men, meanwhile, are weak, clueless and preening, with the exception of Fiennes, who's nuts. But "The Chumscrubber" makes no claims on realism. Instead, it offers an alienated teen's-eye view of a certain upper middle-class adult world. As a denunciation of McCulture -- a subject as easily derided as it is worthy of contemplation -- the movie is flawed and at times overly familiar. But it's nonetheless an impassioned and occasionally mesmerizing first effort that's at once messier, more complex and more ambitious than many recent suburban dystopias, the overpraised "American Beauty" for one. "The Chumscrubber" may not be the definitive movie on the subject (Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" comes much closer), but it ultimately succeeds in capturing an adolescent recoil from American life at its most artificial and alienating that rings true, and not entirely unjustified.



MPAA rating: R for language, violent content, drug material and some sexuality

Times guidelines: Contains drug use, drug-related story elements, some violent scenes

A Newmarket Films/Go Fish Films release. Directed by Arie Posin. Screenplay by Zac Stanford. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Executive producer Michael Beugg. Director of photography Lawrence Sher. Editors William S. Scharf, Arthur Schmidt. Production design Patti Podesta. Music by James Horner. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

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