Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/20/06 w/ Additional Edits.
Being young and in a dysfunctional family is hard, even when trying to grow up is hard. In the book called Thumbsucker by novelist Walter Kirn tells the story of a young boy who has troubles trying to grow up and still sucks his thumb. After getting into various treatments and getting into all kinds of things, the boy's emotional troubles only worsen in this coming-of-age tale. Adapted to a script and directed by acclaimed music video director Mike Mills (not the bass player of R.E.M. of the same name), Thumbsucker goes into the world of teen angst and all the troubles of trying to fit in and everything while dealing with all the problems growing up has. Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kelli Garner, Benjamin Bratt, Vince Vaughn, and Keanu Reeves. Thumbsucker is a funny yet poignant film about all the troubles of growing up.
For Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), his life is always trouble since he can't seem to stop sucking his thumb. His thumb-sucking annoys his father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) while his mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is also concerned. Yet, none of them can escape their dull life in suburbia with the youngest son in the clan, Joel (Chase Offerle). Justin though, remains tormented by his life in high school and often has trouble trying to get things in his debate team class taught by Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn). The only person Justin can talk to from the team is Rebecca (Kelli Garner) who often asks Justin on why he acts weird. At home, Mike runs a sporting goods store while Audrey is a nurse who hopes to win a contest to meet her favorite TV actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt). The only other person Justin can talk to is his new-age orthodontist Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves) who is aware that Justin still sucks his thumb.
Often trying to find time to suck his thumb, Perry notices that if Justin was ever going to get on with his life, he has to let go of his thumb. In an attempt to try to help Justin, he does hypnosis in order to make his stop his thumb and think of other things. The hypnosis seems to work whenever Justin sucks his thumb and it tastes bad but the end result only makes Justin's behavior more erratic to the point that Rebecca notices and leaves the debate team. After trying to get revenge on Perry during a bike race, Justin gets arrested where Mr. Geary and a counselor notices that Justin suffers from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as they hope to cure him with Ritalin. Justin's parents aren't sure if it will work but when Justin does take Ritalin, he immediately becomes a debate team wizard.
Though the feeling of confidence comes, Justin's behavior becomes even stranger as he begins to take more Ritalin and his aggressive debating skills only troubles Mr. Geary. Even when Justin and his teammates (whom all 3 are girls) try to have fun, Geary isn't fond of the change in Justin. After a big victory, Justin's aggressive behavior takes its toll on the family as once his Ritalin addiction is exposed and when his father decides to show up to see him debate. The result is a disaster as Mike tries to comfort him only to be rejected while Audrey, who had been seeing his debate matches, had taken a job working in a rehab center that is filled with celebrities. After quitting the debate team, Justin turns to Rebecca for help in smoking dope and discovering sex but when that doesn't work out. Justin has troubles finding answers while he suspects his mother of having an affair with Matt Schramm, who is at the rehab place while finding out about his father's pain in his life after being a football star. Justin wonders about everything while finding out all the answers from the most unlikely of places and people.
The theme of this film along with a lot of films that came out in 2005 is connection, especially through troubling circumstances. In the case for Thumbsucker, it's about a young kid who has troubles in trying to get himself fixed to become a better person yet couldn't deal with all of the bad things around him. His family is very dysfunctional where his mother wants to live a fantasy and his father trying to achieve a final goal that he didn't get as a high school football star where it leaves his younger, frustrated brother to be the normal one. It's a film where people try to find answers into better themselves only to realize that they're not always there and that some people only set themselves up for disappointments in the way Geary and Perry would see. Even in Justin's relationship with Rebecca, it's very complicated since Rebecca is trying to discover the world of sex only to confuse Justin even more in what her intentions her.
The film is wonderfully directed by Mike Mills in how he observes all the things that goes around in Justin's world. From his visits with Perry about all the things that troubles his life to how he becomes desperate to be accepted only to have it fall apart in his face. Mills direction is excellent in the way he observes Justin's behavior while the script is filled with wonderful development where all the major characters in the film have depth into what they bring into the world, especially Justin. While the film is mostly a drama, it does have its moments of humor in several scenes where it comes off naturally and not in a farcical way that some films try to do. Then there's the subject of thumb-sucking which is really a metaphor in the way that the Ritalin and dope-smoking would get to. It really represents an emotional crutch of a kid where whenever he's is pushed or just feeling very anxious in a bad way.
A film similar to that context on a different scale is Steven Shainberg's 2002 film Secretary where Maggie Gyllenhaal's character cuts herself only to see if she exists only to find a new alternative as a submissive in a sadomasochistic relationship with her boss. Really in many ways, this film is about trying to find things to hold on to while dealing with all the bad things in the world.
Helping Mills in the visual department is cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay is wonderful for its use of color and to convey the dreamy yet ominous mood that Justin goes through as Baca-Asay's cinematography is wonderful. Production designer Judy Becker and art director Walter Cahall do great work in the look of the houses and places that Justin is surrounded by. Especially since Becker's work is filled with odd things in the homes like in Perry's office early in the film, wolves and stuff that brings a lot of humor to the look of the film. Costume designer April Napier also brings a quirkiness to the film, especially in a scene where Tilda Swinton wears these quirky designer dresses to try and look impressive for Benjamin Bratt. The film in its 96-minute running time is paced leisurely while editors Angus Wall and Haines Hall bring great style to the film's presentation to Mills' perspective directing and some jump-cuts to convey the erratic behavior of Justin.
The film's soundtrack which is supervised by Brian Reitzell is filled with dreamy, atmospheric stuff that helps the convey the troubling mood of the protagonist while the film's original music is done by Tim DeLaughter and his band, the Polyphonic Spree. The music of the Polyphonic Spree is wonderful with its lyrics that are uplifting and melancholic that provides the crutch of Justin's emotional struggle as DeLaughter and company do great work. Also added in the soundtrack is some music from the late Elliott Smith who brings in some great covers of Cat Stevens' Trouble and innocent Big Star ballad Thirteen that rings true to the characters who are all growing up.
The film's cast is wonderful which includes some nice small performances from Sarah Bing, Echo Brooks, and Olivia D. Brown as Justin's debate teammates and a wonderful minor performance from Chase Offerle as Justin's young, obnoxious 10-year old brother who becomes frustrated over his brother's weirdness and the family dynamics as he struggles to get some attention. In another hilarious small role, Benjamin Bratt is excellent as Audrey's favorite actor Matt Schramm whose presence as this bland, pretty-boy actor is a wonderful parody only to have more complexity in a meeting between him and Justin where Bratt reveals his humorous side. Vince Vaughn is also funny as Mr. Geary whose tactics to help rile up his students ability to win are fun to watch while Vaughn also shows his more mature side when he sees Justin go into darker behaviors. Kelli Garner, who filled in for Scarlett Johansson at the last minute, does a wonderful job in playing Justin's girlfriend who is looking to understand his behavior only to reveal her true intentions. Garner brings a lot of edge and a natural quality to her role where if the part still went for Johansson, nothing new would've come but Garner brings the right tone for her character who later becomes a stoner.
Of the entire supporting cast, no one brings more surprises or laughs better than Keanu Reeves in his most offbeat performance to date as new-age orthodontist Perry Lyman. Reeves brings the right kind of humor and idiosyncracies to play this new-age guy who tries to help Justin only to change completely as does Justin where he tries to find new answers as his character is a bit parallel to Justin. During their meeting when Justin is now a debate wizard, Reeves brings a hilarious blandness and shock to see Justin's new change where Reeves brings some real depth. Vincent D'Onofrio is also wonderful as Justin's father Mike who hides a deep sense of shame as he tries to hide himself through work and when he finally takes notice of Justin's accomplishments, he tries to be a real father. D'Onofrio brings all kinds of complexity and pain that a father goes through as he and Pucci have great scenes together. Tilda Swinton is also great as Justin's quirky, fantasy-living mother who seems to be the only parent early who wants to connect with Justin. Then when she takes a great job, her character changes as she becomes unaware of her own role as she tries all she can to help Justin and her family.
Finally, we have Lou Taylor Pucci in a performance that can truly described as one of the best performances of the year. With his previous film credit in a small but memorable role in Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity, Pucci is by far one of the best young actors to emerge as he takes his first starring role as a kid who has trouble dealing with the world and looking for something to hold on to. Pucci brings a complex, layered performance in the film as he struggles to find himself as early on, we see Pucci bring every amount of sympathy to this kid only to not like him as much when he goes on Ritalin. It's a very powerful performance as Lou Taylor Pucci who is a true talent on the big screen.
The Sony Classics Region 1 DVD that presents the film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic wide-screen format is wonderful in its transfer, even as it sounds good in its 5.1 Dolby Digital for English and Dolby Surround for French with French subtitles available. The special features include several trailers for films like Junebug, 2046, Breakfast on Pluto,, London, Saint Ralph, The Tenants, and Memory of a Killer which are all released from Sony Classics. The other features include a 20-minute behind the scenes documentary where writer/director Mike Mills, novelist Walter Kirn, and most of the film's cast talk about the movie and the idea of thumbsucking. Kelli Garner reveals the preparation she took into learning about the things discussed in the debate team while Pucci talks about a lot of the angst that goes on through. Tilda Swinton, who is one of the executive producers, reveal how the story affected her since she admits to her own awkwardness as young woman. Another feature that appears in a DVD-rom is a director's blog from Mike Mills that reveals notes on the film's premiere and promotion along with his artwork that he reveals.
The 40-minute conversation between Mills and novelist Walter Kirn is interesting for those wanting to know the comparison between the book and film yet the 40-minute running time does take too long. Mike Mills' feature-length audio commentary on the film brings some wonderful insight into his approach and how he and the cast basically improvised while remaining true to the novel and some of its lines. Mills fonds over Pucci's performance and the rest of the cast while talking about how he did the film in an almost chronological order which is rarely done in most film productions. Mills also talks about how the story he felt related to him and the influence of Hal Ashby that was his true inspiration for the film. Mills also talked about how originally, the late Elliott Smith was going to score the entire film with nothing but covers but never happened when he died. Mills also gives a final comment about his meeting with Ang Lee who gives him some poignant advice as Mills calls Lee's 1997 film The Ice Storm one of his favorites.
Overall, Thumbsucker is an amazing, funny, and dramatic debut feature from Mike Mills led by the amazing Lou Taylor Pucci in his first leading performance. With a great supporting cast and a wonderful crew plus music from the Polyphonic Spree and the late Elliott Smith. Thumbsucker is the kind of movie that kids who don't fit in will seem to love and cherish. Even those who hated the typical high school films would've wished that this film was made when they were in high school. Thanks to Mike Mills' talent in directing and Lou Taylor Pucci's performance, Thumbsucker is surely a film to seek out.
Mike Mills Films: Beginners
(C) thevoid99 2012