Lou Pucci as Justin Cobb
Tilda Swinton as Audrey Cobb
Vince Vaughn as Mr. Geary
Vincent D’Onofrio as Mike Cobb
Keanu Reeves as Perry Lyman
Benjamin Bratt as Matt Schramm
Kelli Garner as Rebecca
Chase Offerle as Joel Cobb
With his feature debut Thumbsucker, director Mike Mills shows an inventive vision and a talent for creating an eclectic and enjoyable mix of comedy and drama.
Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is a seventeen-year-old boy who still sucks his thumb. Whether it’s a way to escape from his dysfunctional parents (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio), currently going through their own mid-life crises or something he just never got over, he decides to do something about it. His New Age optometrist Perry (Keanu Reeves) tries to help him using Ritalin and hypnosis, but it puts Justin through a series of transformations, few which seem much better than his original circumstances.
Mike Mills may not quite be the Second Coming of Wes Anderson or even Todd Solonz, but his first film, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, proves that he is an exciting and inventive talent worth watching. Sure, many will immediately brush his first film off as another Donnie Darko knock-off, and the similarity in backgrounds between Mike Mills and that film’s director, Richard Kelly, is somewhat ironic, but Thumbsucker is a completely different beast.
At its core, it’s about a teenager trying to find his way in the world, going from one addiction to another in the process. Justin is the typical slacker who likes to sleep late, going through life rarely reacting to his problems in school or at home, but his biggest hurdle to cross before making any forward progress is that at 17-years-old, he still sucks his thumb. His oppressive father and his far-too-friendly orthodontist both want to help Justin out of this “phase.” When hypnosis doesn’t work, he starts taking Ritalin, which makes him a lot more driven to do well in school. He joins the debating team taught by the overeager Mr. Geary, played by Vince Vaughn of course, but his teacher is quickly outshined by his hot young debating star. Justin’s heart belongs to Rebecca, a classmate who starts experimenting with her own drugs and who decides to use Justin as a stepping stone in her own journey of sexual self-discovery.
Meanwhile, both his parents are trying to overcome their own sense that their life has passed them by as they’ve strived to raise their kids. Mr. Cobb, played by Vincent D’onofrio, is the typical high school football star who feels he never did more with his life. He hopes that Justin will do more with his, but then feels jealous and resentful when he realizes his son is probably smarter than he was at his age. He’s also stymied by the amount of time his wife Audrey spends obsessing over a popular television star, especially when she enters a contest to win a date with him.
Some might get confused about whether this was intended to be a comedy or a drama, because the humor is so subtle that you’re never really sure if you’re supposed to laugh or not. Like Junebug, it doesn’t hit you over the head with jokes or intentional laughs, but it’s more about the situations. If you’re able to laugh at life, you’re more likely to enjoy the subtleties.
With an abundance of diverse characters, Thumbsucker comes across as part coming-of-age story and part family drama, and it’s fun watching the divergent story arcs unfold, as each person tries to discover themselves, sometimes with help from others, but often on their own. Fortunately, having this many characters means that those watching it should be able to find at least one or two situations to relate to, even if Justin’s journey isn’t one that immediately strikes a chord. In a way, parents of teenagers will probably enjoy watching this as much or more than teenagers who are experiencing similar pressures that Justin faces.
That said, Pucci is the driving force of the film, and like Mills, he’s a talent to keep an eye on. His acting skills are certainly put to the test, since he carries the film opposite far more experienced actors who pop in and out of his scenes. Mills’ choice in some of the casting might seem odd on paper, but Tilda Swinton is just perfect as Justin’s obsessive mother Audrey, mainly because she seems like such an odd match for Vincent D’Onofrio as his dad. It’s more surprising to see Keanu Reeves play a secondary role, although he certainly stands out in their scenes together, although his subdued nature makes his friendship with the much younger Justin that much creepier. Playing the target of Audrey’s obsession, Benjamin Bratt is allowed a number of shining moments that have rarely been seen by him in his past roles. In some ways, he’s also making fun of himself with his portrayal of a fallen actor, but his character brings so much closure to the other characters.
The soundtrack by Tim DeLaughter along with his band Polyphonic Spree brings so much to the film in terms of its feel. Even if you’re not particularly a fan, you can’t help but be uplifted by the emotions the music brings to the film.
The most refreshing thing about Mills’ first film is that all of the characters seem like real people, not only because of their down-to-earth performances, but also because the actors don’t wear a lot of make-up or dress up in flashy clothes. As a director, Mills seems to be aware of every small detail, and he lets a few moments into the film that other directors might see as mistakesclothes getting caught on door knobs and the accidental flicking of a light cord during a dinner scene, for instance. Mills never seeks out perfection, because he’s well aware, as are we all, that the world is not perfect. It’s this sort of approach to filmmaking that makes Thumbsucker such a revelation.
The Bottom Line:
Sure, those who enjoy movies like Donnie Darko and Garden State should appreciate Mike Mills’ sensibilities, but others might be able to find something in each of the quirky character to which they can relate, and most will ultimately be won over by this strange little film.
Thumbsucker opens today in New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere over the course of September.