DVD Review Of Thumbsucker
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/26/06
Thumbsucker is the first film made by indy director Mike Mills, in 2005, and it’s a solid film, but nowhere near as good as one might presume according to its plaudits. The story was adapted from an autobiographical 1999 novel by Walter Kirn, and while it is uniformly well acted the basic problem is that it is yet in another of the series of ‘American suburbia is hell’ films. Given the last few years of terrorism and war this simply does not resonate as strongly as it did a decade or so ago, and even then the horrors of being well-fed, having a good roof over one’s head, and having to listen to one’s parents was, to say the least, a tad overdone.
The tale is rather simple: a seventeen year old boy named Justin Cobb is so insecure that he sucks his thumb. His mom and dad, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), a nurse, and Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), a washed up football player turned retail store manager, whom he calls by their first names because they are afraid of aging, do not ‘get’ him, his younger brother Joel (Chase Offerle) is a brat, the girl he likes uses him, he has a debate team coach Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn) who is oblivious to his needs, and he depends upon the psychobabble of his stoner dentist named Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves- who else to play a stoner?) to cure him of his habit via hypnosis and a reliance on his ‘Power Animal.’ When this fails, Justin turns on the dentist, who, as Justin’s older doppelganger, similarly starts down a path of….you got it, ‘self discovery.’ Unfortunately, for Justin, he’s put on Ritalin, after being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, succeeds momentarily, becomes an intellectual bully and prima donna, then turns to pot, but eventually straightens his life out, and gets accepted into NYU, after playing upon PC tendencies, and lying about his parents both being mentally ill. The ending of the film, stretched over ten or so minutes, is very weak, too pat, and predictable. There are some subplots, such as his mother’s infatuation with a tv star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt) at the rehab clinic she works at. Justin believes she’s cheating on his dad, but when he goes to the clinic he discovers that his mother actually pulled a wad of drugs out from the guy’s asshole.
Pucci does a good job as Justin, but he’s the stereotypical cute boy that populates these sorts of films. Would it not have been more realistic to deal with an ugly, skinny four-eyed kid, or a fat kid, or a kid who’s ethnically different? These are the sorts of things that ‘real’ kids go through. In real life, kids like Justin or Pucci glide through life. As example, the girl he lusts after, Rebecca (Kelli Garner) and who uses him sexually, will always go for the sweet, cute boys like Pucci, whereas the four-eyed kid, the fat kid, or the ethnic kid, really will have problems stemming from rejection. Pucci even gets to get naked in a hotel room before a debate with three of the other female debaters; as if that would ever happen- especially with his teacher supplying them with beer, and also the fact that all three nerdy girls turn out to be hotties with great bodies once they take off their eyeglasses. Again, the Puccis of the world may get some, but real kids with problems never have those sorts of ‘problems.’ These are the only sorts of real ‘realities’ that these indy films ever try to address. Real problems just don’t ‘connect’ with an audience, it seems, just as real literature has been replaced with dumbed down ‘chick lit’. Reeves, as Perry, does well with the three stages of growth for his character- hippy, conformist, and vagabond, and Swinton and D’Onofrio are always good. Even Vince Vaughn is solid.
But, the thing that is missing is the screenplay. Having not read the novel I have to put the blame on filmmaker Mills. There is just something a bit too ABC Afterschool Special or Doogie Howser about this film. Yes, drugs are bad, and life is tough for a teenager. So? This is where the failings of the script come in, because once the film was over, I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters, unlike, say, the flawed but better Mean Creek, or even a weaker film like Igby Goes Down. As good as Pucci is there is a blandness to him that any of the Culkin actor boys does not have. One can believe that those kids, with their slightly inbred looks and glassy eyes, really do suffer in silence, as they say. Pucci, well, he’s just too white bread and charmed. And things like cute girls who catch you sucking your thumb on an airplane and then flirting with you do not occur. Also, the scenes with his parents, when Justin is about to go off to college, are just a wee too precious, with tears welling in the eyes. This is where the film really goes ABC Afterschool Special, and hits the viewer over the head with the message that life is about suffering and growing. To emphasize the point, Mills even has Perry Lyman return to say these very things before Justin leaves. And even though hi scharacter seems to have gotten over his hippy phrase, he still tosses off bon mots like, ‘The trick is living without an answer.’ Whoa, dude….that’s heavy, like. Note to Mills: condescension is never a good thing in the arts. However, there are enough good performances and scenes to make up for these flaws, if just enough.
The DVD has some trailers, a twenty minute making of featurette, which again goes on and on about the perils of suburbia, and a forty minute conversation between Kirn and Mills. Kirn basically talks of how well the story was transplanted from his roots in Minnesota to the Beaverton, Oregon location of the film. The commentary by Mills is blasé, at its best. As usual, it’s a bit too fellatric in its praise of the film’s principals. About the only thing of depth that is broached is a discussion of the script vs. improvised moments, although the fortuity of a smoke ring that stems from Reeves’ cigaret is a bit too much. The cinematography is nothing to write home over, and the choice of songs on the soundtrack, from Elliott Smith to Polyphonic Spree, is mediocre, at best. Again, mostly songs by over-privileged songwriters trying to earnestly tell people how bad their over-privileges were. Overall, I can slightly recommend the film, but in a decade it will be long forgotten, along with the slew of film festival awards it garnered. Not even once does it actually penetrate nor reveal its characters' depths the way a Fellini or Bergman film does throughout, and that’s a shame, because the material was ripe for just such a plumbing. Thumbsucker may be a first effort from a director who will grow, or it may be another in a long line of infantilized films by one shot directors who never seem to grow. Here’s hoping for the former, but if the film’s philosophy is correct, then the latter is more likely. Go ahead, take a taste if that depresses you.
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