Thumbsucker (USA, director Mike Mills): Another directorial debut, this time for Mike Mills, who’s been making short films and music videos for a number of years. An altogether sunnier film than The Squid And The Whale (see review below), the two films are actually interesting mirror images of each other.
Justin (newcomer Lou Pucci) is 17 years old and still sucks his thumb. He tries to hide it from his parents, but they know, and it’s beginning to cause some trouble. He hides it from his new girlfriend, but she dumps him when she senses he’s not “opening up” to her. A school counselor suggests that the problem is that Justin is ADHD and that Ritalin will help. Ah, simple. But he soon dumps the pills and begins to try to stop being “weird”. Along the way, he learns a few things about his parents and about being himself. It’s a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a bit of a twist.
It baffles me why this film was savaged by Variety and a few other critics, who derided it as a “paint-by-numbers” indie film. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Sure, there’s a great soundtrack (Polyphonic Spree and Elliott Smith), and an androgynous young lead (Pucci is excellent and plays innocent like a young Johnny Depp). But there are no shootings, no weird sex, and the family, though far from perfect, are caring and decent people.
It’s actually refreshing to see people in this kind of film portrayed as anything other than freaks. Veterans Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio play parents who really love their kids, though they don’t always understand them. And the film defies convention by having D’Onofrio play the failed athlete dad as someone who really wants a genuine connection with his oddball, non-athletic son.
And even though, compared to something like The Squid And The Whale, this film is polished to a high gloss, it never feels fake. Instead, Mills has created an atmosphere of safety, a place where a great many teenagers actually live.
There is some exposition near the end of the film involving Benjamin Bratt (as a recovering coke addict TV star) that feels contrived, but it’s played for laughs. As is Keanu Reeves’ role as a wholistic orthodontist. His over-the-top performance for once doesn’t seem to detract from the film. Perhaps it was because Mike Mills introduced the film personally, but I get a feeling of sincerity from the film that seems anything but paint-by-numbers. At every step of the process, from his casting, to his soundtrack choices, I think Mike Mills was trying to make an irony-free film. And I think he has succeeded.
Film’s Web Site: http://www.sonyclassics.com/thumbsucker/
Director’s Blog: http://www.sonyclassics.com/thumbsucker/blog