Thumper: Crystal Clear, by David Bax
Early on in Jordan Ross’ Thumper, I started to feel queasy. Not because I was shocked to my core at the revelation that some high schoolers would rather do drugs than get good grades but because I started to worry that this was going to be another glorified after school special, dressed up in vérité to disguise its true nature as just another panicky scold of a movie (see Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen or Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s recent French teen radicalization drama Heaven Will Wait; by which I mean don’t see them). I was relieved to discover Ross has other things on his mind but disappointed to find him exploring them so superficially. Instead of a pearl-clutching warning, Thumper is a college freshman’s haughty polemic.
Kat (Eliza Taylor) is the new kid in town (“town” being an unspecified low-income neighborhood). She soon catches the eye of fellow student Beaver (Daniel Webber). Kat doesn’t seem to mind the attention much because Beaver has something she wants, too; namely, crystal meth. Beaver’s hoping to become a dealer like his friend Troy (Grant Harvey), who works for his military vet cousin Wyatt (Pablo Schreiber), the town’s main cooker and supplier.
One of these people is not entirely what they seem, though, and Ross (who also wrote the screenplay) gets some good mileage out of the early ambiguity before showing his hand, at which point Thumper morphs into a Brick-style high school noir picture, complete with dialogue like, “Was that after he gave you that shiner?” It’s a fun turn, even if it made me wish Ross did more with Lena Headey’s handful of scenes as a detective. We don’t get to know her well enough to learn how she’s boiled but I bet it’s hard.
As Thumper’s real raison d’etre begins to crystallize, it intrigues. As a portrait of poor, white hopelessness (aka “economic anxiety”), it feels like a real attempt to get to know the plight of the legions of Americans about whom the country forgot until they reminded us of their existence by handing us a dreadful, angry, dangerous new President. Ross even addresses the argument that it’s not economics but racism that led to Trump by alluding to—but not excusing—the fact that, for uneducated white people, the two often end up hand in hand. Unfortunately, that part happens in the middle of a forced, clumsy, momentum-killing monologue from Wyatt. Schrieber’s efforts are laudable (and he’s the best thing in the movie overall) but he can’t make a dead thing come to life. This year’s A Ghost Story also features a centerpiece scene in which one character lays out the themes of the movie but, in that case, it’s woven into the tapestry. Here, the film feels as if it’s been put on pause to bring us this message.
Despite its sympathy for Wyatt’s views, Thumper represents a liberal viewpoint. That sympathy, in fact, is a major symptom of its leftist stance. Ross sees the criminals like Wyatt, Troy and Beaver as victims and commendably refuses to offer us any Big Bad who is unworthy of redemption or affection. He also throws a few punches at the futility of the ongoing drug war. And, for what it’s worth, Thumper passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.
Ross clearly has a knack for plotting and the cinematography by Anette Haellmigk (a veteran of HBO dramas like Big Love and Game of Thrones) is captivating and urgent, handheld but woozily beautiful. And there’s no sin in making a movie because you’ve got something to say; I actually tend to like “message movies.” But Thumper fails because Ross forgets that the reason cinema is so good at sending messages is because it engenders empathy and, in order to do that, we need to care about the characters as people who have connections to one another, not just as the paradigms in the filmmaker’s argument.