Eric D. Snider

The Chumscrubber

"Desperate Housewives" has made it trendy again, but the notion of exploring the darkness that lurks beneath the sunny tree-lined streets of suburbia has been around for as long as there has been a suburbia. "The Chumscrubber" is only the latest in a series that has included "Donnie Darko" and "Blue Velvet," but it is one of the best.

Set in the fictional Southern California (where else?) town of Hillside, this is a surreal, stylized, satirized version of picket-fence America, where no one cares about anyone else, where the adults are oblivious and off-kilter, and where the kids are all on drugs either prescribed or illicit (the line between the two categories is thin).

It begins with the suicide of Troy (Josh Janowicz), a high-schooler who was the best friend, or at least closest acquaintance, of the mostly friendless Dean (Jamie Bell). Dean's father, Dr. Bill Stiffle (William Fichtner), pop psychologist and author of the everything-is-connected bestseller "The Happy Accident," is concerned that Dean does not seem to be grieving. His mother (Allison Janney), who sells vitamins through a multi-level marketing program, is worried, too, and the good doctor puts Dean on Viloprex. But Dean has been taking that drug for some time already, having obtained it from Troy, who dealt in such things.

Meanwhile, Dean's fellow students Billy (Justin Chatwin) and Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci) are heirs to Troy's prescription-drug-dealing throne and they want Dean to get into Troy's house to get his leftover cache of pills. When he refuses, they plot to kidnap Dean's little brother Charlie (Rory Culkin) and hold him until Dean complies. This plan is botched when they kidnap the wrong Charlie (Thomas Curtis), a boy whose mother, Terri (Rita Wilson), is so preoccupied with her upcoming wedding to the town's mayor (Ralph Fiennes) that she doesn't realize her son is gone.

With the wedding scheduled as Hillside's social event of the season, Troy's bereaved mother (Glenn Close) wanders from home to home, assuring everyone in a sweet, eerie tone that she in no way blames them for her son's suicide. She seems to have lost her grip on reality, the shocking death of her son making her realize that she, like everyone else in town, doesn't really KNOW anyone. A memorial for Troy is planned, unfortunately for the same day as the wedding.

Through it all is the Chumscrubber, a popular video-game character who wages battle in a post-apocalyptic suburban nightmare that is apparently a reflection of Hillside's repressed anxieties and fears. This unsettling figure, who is seen occasionally as Charlie Stiffle plays the video game, reinforces the movie's "Donnie Darko" connections: the cynical view of suburban America, the disaffected teen protagonist, the plots that fold on top of each other -- and now the hellish fictional character, too.

At only 18 years old, Jamie Bell has already played the lead character in one transcendent film, "Billy Elliot." Now here he is carrying a movie that is, in its own way, just as noteworthy. His performance as the numb, overmedicated Dean is very astute, even adult -- exactly what is called for in this movie where the kids have grown up too fast and the adults have not grown up at all.

In his first feature film, director Arie Posin explores the parallel realms of dark comedy and true pathos to marvelous effect. We can laugh at the caustic, incisive satire of modern America even while we sympathize with the characters who mourn Troy's death. Like all good satire, it is an exaggeration but not an extreme one.

Zac Stanford's screenplay is very shrewdly written, its plots and subplots foreshadowing one another and eventually coming together in wonderfully unexpected ways. There is a sort of magical realism to the film, a suggestion that there is a cosmic hand ensuring that everything happens as it should. Characters are set up and given the downfalls of Greek tragedy figures, and those who are in need of solace do eventually find it.

Grade: B+

Rated R, a dozen or so F-words, some brief violence

1 hr., 42 min.

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