dir: Mike Mills
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Another coming of age story. Another coming of age story about an oddball teenager in high school. Another coming of age story about an oddball teenager in high school who tries to find a way to fit in for most of the film, and only realises at the end that the important thing is to be yourself.
Yes, being your fucking self is the solution to all of life’s problems. Because there aren’t enough arseholes being themselves out there fucking shit up for the rest of us. There aren’t enough of us who are ourselves, which is where all our problems come from in the first place.
As if the world hasn’t had enough of these monstrosities lumbered onto it already. In the last few years I can think of a multitude of flicks with a similar premise (though substantially different execution). Enough already. Napoleon Darko Holden Caufield has left the building.
So. Thumbsucker is a minor, pleasant flick about a 17 year old called Justin (Lou Pucci) who still sucks his thumb. He doesn’t know why he does it, his parents are embarrassed by it, and for Justin it is the cherry on top of a seething mess of teenage neurotic confusions. Which is little different from the lives of most teenagers, minus the thumbsucking, I guess.
His parents, played by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio are adults uncomfortable with the responsibilities of parenthood or adulthood, still drawn to their adolescent dreams of glory. They have a complicated relationship with each other and with Justin, compounded by their own desire for meaning and affirmation.
He’s the kind of friendless wonder who doesn’t seem to notice the lack thereof, and is probably the better for it. He does notice the womenfolk though, especially in the form of Rebecca (Kelli Garner) on the debate team, so he’s not totally beyond saving.
Rebecca is a singularly talented girl who wants to save the world, and who will probably have back problems in later life, so it’s not incomprehensible as to why he might fixate on her, even if he looks like a girl himself.
The thumbsucking really starts to consume him, until a helpful orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) tries to help him with his problem via hypnosis. That’s when Justin’s problems really start to kick in.
Bereft of his security blanket, and acting the loon, the school and his parents agree that a course of Ritalin might solve his problems. And it works a treat. Because you see, Ritalin is only three molecules different from amphetamines anyway, and who doesn’t love speed?
In the words of Mr Geary (Vince Vaughn) the teacher who coaches the debate team and helped advise the pharmaceutical solution, “I’ve created a monster.”
That he has. The more Justin seems to be getting what he wants, and the people around him get what they want, the more insecure and untethered they become.
It’s not an overly profound or riveting film, a light touch and tone permeate throughout, it doesn’t necessarily leave you with a strong lasting impression apart from it being a reasonably pleasant and enjoyable 96 or so minutes. It’s well acted, there’s nothing glaringly awful in it, Justin’s story isn’t too extreme or too mundane, even with the pat and all too convenient ending.
There are characters that needed to be a bit more fleshed-out, who are otherwise rendered two-dimensional plot devices (like the Rebecca character), and there are a ridiculous amount of ‘name’ actors playing small roles, which is a bit distracting. I wonder if they read the script and thought “Wow, credibility on a stick!” Or maybe that this would be the next Donnie Darko, and they’d all become beloved cult figures like, um, those other people apart from the Gyllenhall brother and sister tag team.
The soundtrack is a bunch of wet hippie stuff culled from the likes of dearly departed Elliott Smith, and the Polyphonic Spree. It’s nice, harmless stuff, and it totally blends in with the pleasant and agreeable construction of the overall story.
I’m making it sound as bland and as inoffensive as a tampon television ad. It’s not, it’s just that there is little for the critical faculties to grab hold of and chew the way your dog does on your girlfriend’s underwear.
It’s a relatively intelligent script, which I assume comes from the novel by Walter Kirn, with keenly observed dialogue and clever-clever situations (though they’re a bit unbelievable in some cases). Again, it’s a story written about a troubled prodigy written by a prodigy and probably directed by one too.
There’s no crime in films like this. Apart from the coming-of-age story, there is this rich vein of material in adolescent angst that can result in wonderful films like Thumbsucker, Igby Goes Down, Roger Dodger, Ghost World etc, where the ‘young adult’ confronts the adult world and realises they have no fucking idea how to deal with it. It’s a far more enjoyable genre of flicks for me than the ‘Rich White High School Kids With Problems’, though it can have its merits too.
I can recommend it to people who like coming of age stories starring girlish boys who look like Tilda Swinton (what a casting coup that was), who are happy to be mildly amused for an hour and a half. People expecting thrills, spills and bellyaches should probably look elsewhere for their delectation.
7 times I can think of where the party in the hotel room between Justin and four other liquored up teenage girls could have turned out differently of 10.
“We have to overcome the idea that everyone is the same” – like I couldn’t have worked that out for myself, Thumbsucker.