Whenever I say the name of Mike Mills’ directorial debut Thumbsucker, I feel like I am saying a bad word. Perhaps, it’s the “sucking” part that makes me nervous. Or maybe the perverse elements of my mind kick into hyper-gear with the visual image of the titular character, whose Christian name is Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), lovingly gazing at his predominate digit before self-penetrating his lips. (To be fair, some of the earlier moments do all of this work for me.) What becomes obvious with the subsequent film is that Thumbsucker actually is a stand-in for some pretty dirty words. Those words include “addiction”, “co-dependency”, and “self-denial”. These are sad, tragic words that no doubt have received their fair share of treatment at the cinematic level. But Mills’ finds plenty of angles, not all of them dark as it turns out, in order to explore these ideas and creates an engaging character study with some of the most unexpected performances you will see all year.
There’s an early cue (even during all of those latently sexual close-ups of young Cobb’s thumb) to Thumbsucker’s purpose when it’s revealed mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton), also an addiction specialist who ends up working at a celebrity rehab spot, wants to audition for some modeling. She has always sought the famous, hence the gig she gets later on in the plot and the fact she fell for husband Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) while his college football prospects indicated superstardom before suffering a career-ending injury. In addition to a loud-mouthed little brother Joel (Chase Offerle), there’s no wonder Justin looks for some solace in…anything. Once Justin finds his habit to be prohibiting from opening up with a high-school environmentalist named Rebecca (Kelli Garner), he looks for a solution. As a preliminary measure, he seeks ideas from his spiritual orthodontist Perry Lyman.(Keanu Reeves) Since Lyman sees multiple problems arising from this oral protrusion, he suggest a form of hypnosis requiring Justin to assign himself a “personal, inner animal.” Listing to Lyman’s dialogue transferred by Keanu’s typical delivery, it has such a natural grace that one could laugh if it were not so typical and terrifying. (As Justin inquires at one point, “Why are you talking like that”?) This is one of those performances that is only enhanced by the sheer presence of the actor; when no one else do such justice to such strange, stagy material. Yet Keanu does this while keeping everything in the context of the story and the character’s reality. When Justin retaliates after Lyman’s therapy proves effective, the scene is too funny to spoil and too hard to explain. Let’s just say Justin figures out Lyman’s inner, personal animal and uses that animal against him. (Trust me, it’s funny)
When Lyman’s meta-psychobabble ultimately falls apart, Justin turns to prescription drugs at the suggestion of his high-school’s speech and debate coach Mr. Geary. As played by Vince Vaughn, Mr. Geary is a searing mess of a desire of acceptance and superiority. For a guy who has made a persona like the phony hot-shots he plays, Vaughn uses this small role in this small film to show the complete vapid side of his typical character in a way he has not since the best part of his dramatic film period in the late 1990’s. It’s a good note for the film as well for Vaughn is capping off perhaps the best year he’s had since Swingers came out in 1996. Justin’s use of drugs to obtain academic and extracurricular success has an unnerving edge because the practice seems to make it seem so much more effective. But watching the hopelessness around him, including the strain on his parent’s marriage and Rebecca’s drifts into the pothead culture. Of course, for any film about a teenaged boy trying to come to terms with life, nothing is more addictive than the promise of a girl and Justin follows her promptly. At the end of this journey, Justin learns that everyone around him uses all sorts of tactics and crutches to get by with things. The film does not close with some great understanding except to let us know our protagonist has a lot more learning to do before anything can be figured out. That in itself is a nice touch to the coming-of-age genre where screenwriters presume all thoughts and change is concluded at the age of eighteen.
Thumbsucker runs the gambit from emotional to psychological to physical dependency in a slight hour-and-a-half run time. Perhaps what helps Mills is the breeziness of how he presents the material. Sure, some of it veers on the quirky side and for some reason praise for this film has drawn the unfortunate analogy between this film and Napoleon Dynamite. But why? That earlier film did not try to present serious themes with any kind of realistic character development. I suppose Dynamite’s unwarranted success will now lead to ANY film about high school with funny quirkiness will lead to an inevitable conclusion. The funny quirkiness of this film is not only grounded in the material but indeed acts as a contrast to the film’s other tones. Pucci and D’Onofrio have a great father-son chemistry as does Pucci and Garner. Both those performances have the appropriate weight for their impact on the overall story. Of course, all of this leads to the conclusion that this film would surely fail without the charm of the lead actor. Pucci looks like he should be some whimsical fantasy figure out of some Gus Van Sant film. (I might be unfairly applying the “van Sant” comment because the film generously applies Eliot Smith songs; a sad reminder that the talented singer-songwriter was supposed to pen this entire soundtrack before he committed suicide.) But Pucci’s quiet nature and quaking voice lends well to the force he uses in reading his lines. The force is real so the fact that this central characters always seems to be unraveling at his center gives the film the tension it needs. Thumbsucker says nothing horribly new about its subject the humanity and sweetness injected is something new; a film that makes survival something worth living for. Can there be anything dirty about that?