Parents just don’t understand

The Chumscrubber

Camilla Belle and Justin Chatwin contemplate the scrubbing of chum.

Camilla Belle and Justin Chatwin contemplate the scrubbing of chum.

Rated 4.0

I guess I should get the bad news out of the way right up front.

The Chumscrubber, the new first feature from writer Zac Stanford and director Arie Posin (who created the story to Stanford’s script), has one of the most infelicitous titles of any movie all year. The headless antihero of an apocalyptic video game, the Chumscrubber stalks through the computer and television screens of the film’s teenage characters. He seems, in some hard-to-define way, to shape and to reflect their view of the world, while their parents remain entirely unaware of his existence. It’s a rather foggy, head-scratching metaphor that doesn’t really shed light on the story.

But don’t let that put you off. The Chumscrubber is a true original—bleakly funny; exhilaratingly unpredictable; and, by the end, strangely optimistic in the way its characters, for better or worse, get what’s coming to them.

It begins, literally, with a chum being scrubbed. In the sunny suburb of Hillside, Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell), a sullen teen who will become the movie’s reluctant hero, goes to visit his friend Troy Johnson. Troy is Hillside’s top drug dealer, and Dean’s supply of pills has gone dry.

Troy’s mother (Glenn Close) interrupts her cheerful poolside party to send Dean to what she calls Troy’s “little hideaway,” the guesthouse out back. Entering the darkened apartment, Dean finds Troy hanging from the rafters by an extension cord, a suicide. He closes the door and, in a haze of shock, heads for home, pausing only to bid goodbye with a tight little smile.

In the wake of Troy’s death, Dean tries to withdraw. His father (William Fichtner), a psychiatrist author of self-help books, offers to counsel him, but Dean is all too aware that he’s only being studied for a chapter in Dad’s next book. In a sly little irony, Dad prescribes a tranquilizer that is, in fact, the drug Dean had hoped to obtain from Troy—and then, when Dean gobbles the pills like Tic Tacs, Dad doesn’t even offer a use-only-as-directed warning. Meanwhile, Dean’s mom (Allison Janney) hawks her line of vitamins to friends on the phone and hardly seems to notice what’s going on with her son.

The plot moves into second gear when three kids from school—Billy (Justin Chatwin), Crystal (Camilla Belle) and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci)—try to get Dean to find Troy’s stash of pills and turn it over to them. He refuses, so they hatch a plot to kidnap Dean’s brother Charlie (Rory Culkin), demanding the pills as ransom. But—high gear—the kidnappers mess up and snatch the wrong kid. They get Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis) instead.

Charley’s parents don’t even notice that he’s gone. His interior-decorator mother, Terri (Rita Wilson), is too busy planning her wedding to Hillside’s mayor (Ralph Fiennes), while his police-officer father (John Heard) is too busy stalking his ex-wife and her new fiancé. Dean realizes that if he doesn’t come out of his shell and do something, nobody will.

Posin and Stanford are fortunate for their excellent ensemble cast, but the actors in turn must have been drawn to the way the movie’s plot works itself out, building one incident on another in an almost elegant progression. Patti Podesta’s spotless production designs and Lawrence Sher’s razor-sharp cinematography make Hillside a picture-perfect community where hardly a blade of grass is out of place and where a spilled glass of wine carries the visual shock of an artillery shell. In this suburban world, kids and adults live separate lives that intersect almost at random, and the intersections mean different things to each of them.

It’s a theme that The Chumscrubber shares, oddly, with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but where Steven Spielberg viewed the divisions with whimsical relish, Posin and Stanford give them an ominous undercurrent that unsettles even as it amuses.

The vision here is bleak but, in the end, not hopeless. One fine scene late in the film between Glenn Close and Jamie Bell shows the tentative, almost bashful beginnings of a real connection between the teen and adult universes, and the movie ends on a promising note. Everything is connected, we are told, whether we can see it or not.