The first thought everyone levels at this movie is the one you'd expect from most synopses, the tagline, the cover art--most things: "Suburbia is a joke." The idea has been covered many times before (most notably, perhaps, in American Beauty), but that's true of most thoughts and ideas in film (or music, television, books...). It's used, like many simplistic arguments, as a way of completely depriving a work of any kind of value, without bothering to first experience it. I'm not going to confidently assert that I haven't been guilty of the same. I probably have, in fact. But, when it does occur, I do my best to try to see and justify how this is a specific and actual failure, showing or explaining why it is that the work brings us nothing new or useful or interesting. It doesn't help anything that, like many movies that address this topic, this is black comedy and at least half-satirical. That works against it in two ways, of course: one, the fact that it's familiar, and two, the fact that it's something that doesn't always work for everyone.
In a small suburban town, the high school is supplied with drugs by Troy Johnson (Joshua Janowicz), who passes them to Billy (Justin Chatwin), Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Crystal (Camilla Belle) to distribute directly. When Dean (Jamie Bell) goes to see Troy one day, he is asked by Troy's mother (Glenn Close) to have Troy turn down his stereo. Dean finds, then, that Troy has hanged himself. When Dean fails to notify anyone else as he backs away and leaves, his parents (William Fichtner and Allison Janney) are unsure what to do with him. Billy and Lee are unsure what to do with their business without a supplier, and their paths begin to cross when their plan to force the assistance of Dean in acquiring whatever remained of Troy's stash goes awry. Eventually, they've embroiled the unwitting involvement of Officer Lou Bratley (John Heard), his ex-wife Terri (Rita Wilson), their son Charlie (Thomas Curtis), her new fiance Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), Lee's parents (Jason Isaacs and Caroline Goodall), and Crystal's mother Jerri (Carrie-Anne Moss). Everyone wanders around in their worlds, oblivious to the interactions occuring around them. Dean's father Bill (Fichtner) is devoted to his career as book-writing psychiatrist who has already used his son as subject for previous writing, his wife is devoted to a business selling vitamin supplements and trying to be a family, Lou is lost in the marriage he won't acknowledge the end of, Jerri is trying her best to be her daughter's age, Terri is focused on her upcoming second marriage, Mrs. Johnson is trying to deal with the loss of her son and the absolute lack of attention anyone is paying to her loss, and Ebbs is lost in a spiritual epiphany brought on by Bill's book, The Happy Accident--which is only the start of their interactions.
Director Arie Posin and screenwriter Zac Stanford put together the original idea with each other, and framed it around the central concept of The Chumscrubber, a background fiction that runs throughout the youth of the movie. Dean's younger brother (played by Rory Culkin) and the Bratleys' son Charlie are both seen playing the game based on it, Charlie is seen reading a comic, and more than one of them has a poster for the character hanging in their rooms. The Chumscrubber is from a world that strongly resembles their own suburb, but blown up in a nuclear explosion and left filled with zombies, and he is a teenager himself--but one who woke up without his head attached any longer. But, he took this not as a sign to roll over, but to continue and do what he needs to to survive. I will admit this frame is imperfect, but it's only that it doesn't quite gel and fall into place, not that it feels overly clumsy or forced--the latter being an especially large relief. The shifts between humour and moments of serious tension or emotional understanding are very well executed, as you aren't left disoriented when they occur, instead carried along into each with the proper frame of mind. Of course, the moments of shock and the more sudden laughs are also successful. The inevitable exaggerations and hyperbolic moments of this kind of comedy are noticeably just that, but don't end up crossing the line and ruining the suspension of disbelief so long as you accept the fact that this movie is what it is.
The essential sensibility of the movie is that of failure to connect or interact, visible in everyone and everything, even those attempting to get past those limitations. Bill is beyond narcissistic beyond all reckoning--when he confronts Dean about the death of his best friend, he quickly begins jotting down notes. It begins to lock Dean down in his emotional confusion and pain over the loss of his friend--loss we see on the slow, focused shot that follows him away from Troy's body. Crystal's confused attempts to connect to Dean--which very much mirror Bill's--also force him further away from everyone else. Both of them seem to be legitimately interested in Dean's well-being, but both are poor at hiding their secondary (or, more likely: primary) motivations from him. And we see every character constantly passing by Dean, and Dean passing them, no one noticing. Terri is so invested in her wedding she can't keep track of her own son, or even the man she's planning to marry. Bill fails as a father in his interest in his career. Jerri is lost in trying to be the better teenaged girl than her daughter. Billy is lost in trying to be different from his father. None of them finds the places where those motivations are parts of the lives of others. Dean has long since learned that having no friends is the best approach--not because he's not interested in others, but because he's been betrayed like we see he was by his father, even though he's still trying and willing, for a moment, to think maybe a connection is possible. But these two betrayals renew his decision to avoid connections to others, even as Crystal circles him and they both try to read each other and understand, catching glimmers of truth and flashes of acting.
The movie is like a lot of first time features: Arie and Zac have had their whole lives to put together a script and the ideas for the movie to come from it. They've worked the Chumscrubber in everywhere, even if it's not perfect, it manages to feel natural--and you start to realize it's actually more ubiquitous than you noticed previously. And there are moments where you realize just how interconnected all of these characters are, even though none of them ever realize: other than Dean. It's somewhat ironic, of course: the most emotionally shutdown is the one most aware of others. It's also a neat trick of Stanford's script and Bell's acting that he gains the sympathy of the viewer. There are a number of clever shots--from the one following Dean from Troy's body to others than manage to invert expectations and live by reactions instead of showing us what they are reacting to. There's a moment with Billy that you think will go in a certain direction, and it goes that way--but it stops short. We see how Crystal and Lee react to it, and the point is made. There's a sense, for some viewers, that we're denied the "pay-off" or the confirmation of our expectation--but, truth be told, it's readily apparent. There's no question as to what happens, and it draws your attention to the fact that the important element here is the characters, not the plot itself. The first moment, without a doubt, is where Ralph Fiennes begins his enlightenment. We do see what he is beginning to piece together, but we see it first in his face, and focus on it longer than is usual.
This is a wonderfully quirky movie, but a lot darker and more dramatic than that word might accurately imply. Still, it's worthwhile, if nothing else for the interesting choice to have a huge cast in the parents, and smaller stars for the teens--of course, that follows logically in a sense: an older actor is more likely to have more experience anyway. Still, it means that the teens all look less like stars jammed into roles and more like the characters they're playing.