What a long strange trip Thumbsucker was. Will it be a commercial success? I’ve got to guess no. Is it an artistic one? I’ve got to say yes. Furthermore I have some wonderful news for the ladies of America. The search is over; we’ve found the new Johnny Depp. Thumbsucker takes patience, but I think it pays off enough to recommend.
Lou Pucci plays a young Johnny Depp, er a senior in high school named Justin who still sucks his thumb. This kid is good. At twenty years old he already must be tabbed as a “future star”. If you can buy his rookie card I’d urge you to do so. The plot of Thumbsucker rests on his shoulders, he’s asked to be angry, confused, sad, silly, and he pulls them off with such effortless grace you’d think he had been doing this forever.
Thumbsucker is a coming of age story on the surface, a kid who doesn’t really fit in and feels uptight in his own skin. Like all teenagers really, but the character Justin has a much harder time relating to peers or adults. He’s a monster for some of the film, a puppy during other points. He’s the victim of parents who had him too young, of raging hormones, and of drugs (both prescribed and illicit). This is a strange journey through the young mind. This world is where people scream “you’ve got potential” at you all day long, and where just putting on your underwear to start the day feels like kind of a drag. Personally, I’ve found putting underwear on has never given me any measure of “real” satisfaction either.
Justin is affected by everything around him. Sensitive is not the word. He’s a live wire. The adults in his life play a much bigger role in the story then do other teens. Keanu Reeves plays Justin’s new age dentist who at least tries to help him through his thumb sucking initially. Keanu does well here in a difficult part. He’s not in a ton of scenes but he’s used effectively. Even better is Vince Vaughn who plays Justin’s debate teacher and coach. This is a really nuanced role for Vaughn and further proof to me that he’s a serious talent. I’m not sure when he’ll get another shot at drama but I think he’s earned it. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Kelli Garner’s heartbreaking turn as Rebecca, a quasi-girlfriend of Justin’s. She seems spaced and cute until the curtain is pulled back and she’s revealed.
The dialogue in Thumbsucker is superb, a credit to the initial author Walter Kirn and whatever director Mike Mills added. It sparkles. Justin yo-yo’s back and forth in this movie and without the tiny dialogue epiphanies this film would quickly lose its steam. The musical transitions are nice as well with Polyphonic Spree and Elliot Smith setting the mood.
The best movies in the world to me are like roller coasters. They build and build before dropping twenty stories with a twist or a realization. Thumbsucker probably doesn’t build enough to capture the general public’s imagination, and it is too serious to be this year’s Napoleon Dynamite but I really liked it anyway. At the end of the day it is a beautiful look at adolescence and relationships.