Thumbsucker (2005)

In spite of the fact that it’s helmed by a first-time director, starring a complete unknown, and on a limited release, Thumbsucker may well nonetheless be a contender for movie of the year. Cinema attendance has slumped this year, so perhaps it’s too much to hope that it’ll attain the same sort of cultish adoration as last year’s Garden State or Napoleon Dynamite achieved, but it certainly deserves to.

Justin Cobb is your average weird teenager. He doesn’t relate to his parents, doesn’t do well at school, doesn’t have many friends, can’t tell his crush how he feels, and worst of all, still sucks his thumb. His friendly family dentist, Perry, after repeatedly fixing the resultant overbite, eventually gets fed up and decides to take matters into his own hands. Through the power of hypnosis, he introduces Justin to his power animal and convinces him that his thumb tastes of Echinacea. Which is where all Justin’s problems really start.

Unable to turn to his thumb for comfort, Justin works his way through a succession of replacement emotional crutches – from prescription drugs through debate team, sex, and illegal drugs – to eventually reach the conclusion that maybe it’s okay to just be a bit weird. It’s perhaps not an entirely original concept; actually, that conclusion is precisely the same as that of I Heart Huckabees, but unlike the piles of sub-par indie coming-of-age movies of recent years, Thumbsucker pulls it off.

And the reason it pulls it off is because of some expert characterisation. This kind of angsty film sinks or swims pretty much entirely due to its ability to draw believable, interesting, and ultimately real characters. Even the more genre-flavoured ones, like Donnie Darko, relies on the strength of its characters, and Thumbsucker creates an entire community with the sort of skill a music video director like Mike Mills just shouldn’t have.

Although Justin is necessarily the focus, and Lou Pucci is actually just as good as everyone says he is, none of the other characters suffer because of this. The “love interest” isn’t just the love interest; she’s an insecure, needy girl who wants to save the world and can only have sex with someone safe, like Justin, and only then when he’s blindfolded and she’s in control. Justin’s parents are never just his parents; or never his parents at all, really. “Mike”, as he prefers to be called, is a failed athlete whose abortive career haunts him, making him feel like he’s beneath the notice of his wife, and causing him to be completely unable to relate to his children, who just make him feel old. Audrey, meanwhile, fails just as thoroughly as a mother; feeling trapped and isolated within the confines of her picture perfect nuclear family, she spends her days fantasising about a television actor and scheming to meet him. Even Justin’s stunningly normal younger brother and debate coach (a bizarrely subdued Vince Vaughan) are given enough personality of their own that they never become just textbook supporting characters. In the midst of a cast of superbly drawn characters, written and portrayed with an astonishing deftness of touch, it’s surprisingly Keanu Reeves’ character, orthodontist Perry, who stands out. Reeves takes a lot of flack for his poor acting and even poorer ability to choose decent films, so it’d be easy to find him the weak link here, but somehow he isn’t. He does William-Shatner his way through some scenes, with some wry references to his past roles thrown in for good measure, but that somehow seems appropriate. His body language more than makes up for it as he sucks his way needily though an endless supply of cigarettes and, on one occasion, manages to make something pathetic, hilarious, and ultimately poignant about unsuccessfully struggling with a latex glove.

Perry is initially a free spirited, hippie type, decorating his office with tacking paintings of wolves, running marathons and indulging in alternative therapies, but just as Justin makes his way through various different therapies and perspectives, Perry too gets to change and grow. As an adult and a professional, he feels the need to always have all the answers, but as one thing after another fails him, he’s forced to admit that actually, maybe no-one knows best. Being just a dentist, it might seem a little implausible that he’s so involved with the unfolding story, but he never feels shoehorned in; instead, he’s an adult-sized reflection of Justin’s emotional journey.

In case it’s all starting to sound a little too twee, it should be pointed out that there are no easy answers, and not everyone gets to learn and grow and move and shine. Justin’s parents remain hopeless till the end: even when he announces his acceptance into New York University, they can’t overcome their own egos for long enough to congratulate him. Mike, in particular, is so incredibly frustrating it’s tempting to shout at the screen; it’s a painful scene that somehow rings all too true.

The only weak point of the film might be its soundtrack. Which isn’t an entirely fair criticism; the soundtrack is really a perfect fit, a mixture of Elliott Smith and original tracks by the Polyphonic Spree, which is a recipe for atmospheric loveliness. It’s just that the film has a tendency to be a little too self-conscious about it; the music pushes itself to the foreground at the expense of the visual or the plot, and there’s a slight awkwardness about it. It’s a forgivable flaw, certainly; it’s just the one element of the film that doesn’t quite meld with the rest, and given that the film is overall of such a high standard, the slightly heavy-handed music editing sticks out like, excuse the pun, a sore thumb.

For every viewer who draws hope or comfort from the themes of the film, there’ll doubtless be another who’ll dismiss it as yet more suburban middle-class white boy angst. Which is where the story, characters, humour and warmth step in to make it all worthwhile in the end.

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