Thumbs debuts tonight on MTV at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Reality TV may ultimately bring down the curtain on civilization, but while we’re waiting, it also provides cover under which some pretty decent documentaries can make it to television. Bill Couturié’s Thumbs is a friendly, exceedingly likeable film about some of the kids who made it to the (get this) U.S. National Texting Championship in Manhattan. (The contest, which awarded a $50,000 prize to the top winner, was sponsored by LG Electronics, which naturally supplied the phones used in the competition. It’s to Couturié’s credit that the film never feels like a feature-length product placement.) Text-happy teenagers are probably also prominently featured on somebody’s full list of all the things conspiring to destroy civilization, but the kids we meet here, who range in age from 13 to 16, seem healthy and well-adjusted, with the kind of amused but tolerant parents whose influence, at one time in my life, might have helped make me a productive member of society. They’re also all open to the camera—even the token wallflower, Brianna, a shy, modest Brooklynite who, in contrast to the more openly self-assured texting champions around here, seems to take her inspiration from James Joyce’s advice that the artist rely on silence, exile, and cunning (hold the exile).
I guess there’s a case to be made about the evils of texting. Except for some mild counsel to the effect that you probably shouldn’t do it while piloting a gas tanker down an ice-covered highway, Couturié clearly didn’t want to have to interview any of the people eager to make that case any more than the rest of us want to have to look at them. Slyly, he addresses their viewpoint by having one of his stars, Kate, summarize all the crap she’s gotten from them: “You’re antisocial, because you can’t hold a phone conversation, your parents must be terrible parents, your professors must hate you, you must get stupid grades, you must just be a bad child because all you’re doing is texting. I’ve gotten all that.” Let the word go out from this time and place that Kate herself is a smart, pretty blonde who gets excellent grades and works hard on the school newspaper, to the apparent delight of all those privileged to be around her. She even has actual living, breathing friends, and seems to totally get the distinction between texting them and more direct forms of communication. “I’d rather talk to Niles than text him,” she explains, pointing to Niles, “while he’s right here.”
Like Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You, Thumbs makes the case that technological innovation and the way the human race adapts to it actually makes things faster, smarter, and better—which if I correctly remember my Jules Verne, is how it was always supposed to work in the first place. Whether or not they’re typical of the great pockmarked masses out there, Kate and the other youngsters profiled here don’t seem antisocial or zombified or cocooned from real existence. Instead, they seem tingling with life and just really happy to be able to expand their social circle by roping in people who live far away, who they never would have been able to get to know in the pre-social networking era.
The world keeps presenting them with challenges, which they are prepared to meet head on. Brandon, for instance, is a handsome young lad who, like Jimi Hendrix with his guitar, has trained himself to work his phone while holding it behind his back, so as not to hurt his teacher’s feelings when he needs to text during class. If classroom texting is a problem, the most constructive approach might be to treat it as not that different from all the other responses to boredom that teachers have always had to find ways to overcome. “I know I’m not going to catch it all,” says one teacher, “but if I can keep them engaged, then I’m not going to have to turn around and monitor their use of the cell phone, because [the students are] active in the classroom.” There is a word for this kind of attitude. I think it’s “sane.”
That said, the little freaks sure can text. Anthony, the acknowledged speed freak ninja master of the kids, looks like the over-caffeinated love child of Eddie Deezen and Shia LaBeouf and sends “approximately 30,000 text messages a month.” (Asked if Anthony ever texts in class, his mom shouts “No!” at the camera, as if trying to convince herself, along with the rest of America, that that ship hasn’t probably already sailed.) Brandon says that he hones his chops by basically texting everything he sees, and at one point is seen taking up space in a fast food restaurant, texting the menu. It’s said that texting is more of a girl’s sport, though Brandon, as he points out, is getting to an age where he can see the virtues in an activity where the girls outnumber the boys at a rate of six to one. One difference between the girls we see (including Erin, a softball player who describes herself as “very competitive,” and the high-spirited Mariah, who is Facebook-engaged to Anthony and could be voted Most Likely to Have a Texting Rehab Center Named After Her) and the boys is that the boys seem more likely to get hung up on sheer prowess and are constantly trying to increase their speed. Anthony’s speed is won at the expense of any but the barest grab at spelling accuracy, and in the competition, he comes to grief because of this.
“Grief” isn’t much of an overstatement, either. Most of Thumbs feels so larky that it’s surprisingly hard on the viewer when the actual competition begins and, inevitably, some of our heroes crash and burn. Even then, though, it’s good to see how much resilience and proper perspective is on display. One girl who’s finished out of the money leaves the auditorium to cry on her mother’s shoulder, but she’s mostly sad because she feels that the fun has ended too quickly. Then, just as her mom is asking the cameraman to “give us a minute,” she remembers that she has to suck it up and root for her friend who’s still onstage, and runs back inside. If Thumbs has a glaring flaw, it’s that Couturié, who you might think would be eager to do anything he could to justify that dopey title, doesn’t do enough to film the kids when they’re texting so that you can actually see their thumbs in action. There’s one shot when you can see Anthony at work where he looks as if the movements of his hands should set the keypad on fire, but for the most part, their thumbs are either obscured or out of the frame entirely. (As the competition narrows down, the camera begins to concentrate on close-ups of eyes, as if Couturié thought he was Sergio Leone all of a sudden.) It’s like photographing Elvis from above the waist.