I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I was emotionally invested in a film that largely focuses on teenagers rapidly tapping keys on their phone.
That speaks to the quality of "Thumbs," a surprisingly entertaining documentary that follows a dozen or so competitors through a grueling national texting championship.
The key to its enjoyment came from the attachments you formed with the various competitors. "Thumbs" spends a good chunk of time building an emotional core with several of the teenagers around the country who have formed bonds with each other through their common love of text messaging.
All of the kids are local speed texting champs. From one boy from California who can fire off text messages behind his back, to the Iowa-based reigning champion's habit of waking up before dawn every day to send a few messages while still in bed, the film fully fleshes out several of the competitors well before they hit the tournament in Manhattan. It's a move that pays off as movie progresses.
The film wisely uses Facebook as a tool to connect the various kids. They all exchange text messages like they're best friends, but surprisingly have never met in person. It illustrates the virtual community that they have built, which extends to everything from one competitor's upcoming swim meet to a pair's discussion about their grades and upcoming exams. These aren't just text-crazy kids; they have well-rounded lives.
The national championship was sponsored by LG Electronics, and all of the competitors had to use the same LG phone to keep things even (the product placement was probably appreciated by LG too). The phone offered a full keyboard, which made me wonder how well these kids would do with an older cell phone dialpad. Probably not as well, but still far faster than me in my heyday.
The competition offered a varied mix of games, from texting blindfolded to the tapping out well-known abbreviations. Aspiring text-jockeys out there will be interested to know that the competition mixes things up, including intentionally misspelling words and throwing numbers and symbols, so using auto-correct or auto-complete wouldn't help much.
One criticism, however, was the film didn't do a good job of showing how fast the kids texted. You saw a few scenes where letters appear across the screen as they typed, but for film titled "Thumbs," you didn't get a good shot of one working the keyboard. Director Bill Couturie said one of the kid's fingers moved so fast you could barely see them; I would have liked to have seen that myself on screen.
Couturie was more interested in the characters, and it shows. That emotional attachment ends up shaking you as some of the kids you spend the most time with get knocked out of the competition early. You think it's a silly texting contest? Not for these texters. And when they break down, you feel the loss too.
By profiling many of the key participants in the competition, "Thumbs" evokes the same feel as "Spellbound," a documentary that focused on eight competitors for the national spelling bee, which garnered much critical praise when it came out nearly a decade ago. Indeed, Couturie pitched the project as "Spellbound on Red Bull."
Couturie and the team behind the film set out to make the definitive documentary about text messaging as a way to start a dialogue about the issue. But "Thumbs" isn't overly preachy, and decides not to make any judgements about the kids, many of whom average tens of thousands of text messages a month.
The film does overtly call out the dangers of text messaging while driving through some of the dialogue between the kids and their parents, something the creators said LG insisted on adding as part of its campaign to stop the practice. It also adds at the end, to the amusement of the audience, a message from one girl saying she was just diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Generally, there is a refreshing lack of any anvil-like heavy messages, allowing you to make up your own mind about our messaging-centric culture. It's a film I think you should check out.
"Thumbs" premieres on MTV on August 19 at 10 p.m.