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Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Lou Pucci, Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D
eanu Reeves has found a role that completes the destiny begun in 1989 with his role as Bill S. Preston, Esq.’s sidekick—finally taking and running with the stoner/bad actor image that pop culture has so gleefully been throwing at him since he uttered the line “I know Kung Fu.” In Thumbsucker he plays Perry, a spaced-out orthodontist with prayer beads and a flawless decoration sense (gigantic paintings of tundra wolves), who also dabbles in hypnosis, and utters such pearls as: “When you feel like sucking your thumb, I want you to call on your power animal.”
Director Mike Mills cuts his teeth with this screen adaptation of Walter Kirn’s eponymous novel, graduating from the music video medium to this feature film with the help of a mixed cast of stars and newcomers. Debuting in his first major role as Justin Cobb, Lou Pucci plays a distracted and angsty 17-year-old who hasn’t quite kicked the thumb-sucking habit. Granted, his family life is not the most stable. His mother is an RN with a bit-too-serious crush on uber-schlocky TV actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), and his dad, an example of the well-worm “wanted to be a pro football player but got injured and then married and had kids” archetype, is a manager of a sporting goods store with a wooden sign reading “winners treat every practice as a game.” (He probably wore a lot of No Fear in his youth.) His precocious little brother has a mouth like a sailor. He calls his parents by their first names, not because of some weird dysfunctional distancing problem, but because his dad makes him—he doesn’t want to feel old.
Neo explains why all warriors of the Matrix have to wear name tags now...
After said father’s attempt to get his son to stop sucking his thumb by such measures as telling him he is “pathetic,” or by mini-megalomaniacally writing his initials on the offending thumb as a reminder, Justin turns to his hippie orthodontist, who plants a hypnotic suggestion that his thumb will henceforth “taste like Echinacea,” thus setting off the first of the many massive character arcs in the film. Unable to suck his thumb, but still jittery and unhappy, Justin jumps at the chance to take medication after being spuriously diagnosed with ADHD (for “being terrified when he’s alone,” “ignoring information,” and “making mistakes”), despite his parent’s skepticism. In what seems like a long commercial for psychostimulants, Justin finds himself a much more effective person, able to read Moby Dick cover to cover and to bring his school’s debate team to victory.
It all comes around, though. While this arc is progressing, Justin’s former crush, a girl who formerly wore t-shirts sporting slogans like “Club Sandwiches/Not Seals” and performing monologues on Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, in not so far of a move becomes a disaffected, self-medicating cool kid who hangs out in dark places and smokes copious amounts of ganja. Very quickly, and unabashedly, the movie broadcasts its major themes: addiction, obsession, and competing images of reality. Justin’s mother goes from supportive to frustrated and unhappy, taking up smoking and transferring to a celebrity rehab clinic to apparently be closer to her prime-time heartthrob, who it turns out was maintaining a $1000-a-day drug habit; the Orthodontist, after being surprise-attacked in a bike race by Justin and his little brother wielding cheesy wolf paintings with huge red Xes through them, suddenly becomes clean-cut and dismissive of the “cloud of hippie psychobabble” that he was residing in. Meanwhile, Justin picks up drugs with his sort-of ex, and the two begin experimenting with blindfolds.
"And when I take the blindfold off, you'll open your eyes and see...well, lots of crappy graffiti, but at least you're out of the house..."
Throughout all of this, Mills performs a tenuous balancing act between multiple tones, oscillating back and forth between what kind of movie he wants to make: a weird-and-intelligent-yet-glib hipster film, or a deep-and-thoughtful-yet-sentimental coming of age tale. On the one hand, you have pink-screen dream sequences of molecules flying together or Justin slow-mo digging through the garbage to retrieve his discarded ADHD drugs only to find himself falling in a huge pile of trash (see: the overpowering aesthetic of I Heart Huckabees), or Keanu Reeve’s ultra-pomo reappropriation of his own bad acting, or the density of cultural references dropped left and right (everything from Rushmore to Star Wars); on the other there are the numerous (at least four or five) happy/sad montage sequences (see: just about any given film with a teenager in the lead role), the use of slow motion to dramatize running away from things, and such heavy lines as “We’re all just scared little animals, ” “We have to overcome the idea that everyone is the same,” or “I never knew how hungry you were.” Somewhere in the middle of this is an anomalously gross scene involving a baggie full of drugs, a stubborn colon, a dull spoon, and a lot of blood, but I won’t even try to place that one.
Regardless of precisely what kind of film this is, whether it is a complete success, or whether these things are actually all that important, Thumbsucker’s greatest take-away point is the wonderful characters that populate it. Reeves’ nigh-brilliance has already been mentioned, and Pucci deftly delivers the spirit of Cobb throughout all of his peregrinations, but then there’s also Vince Vaughn playing Mr. Geary, a brilliant take on the tough-yet-encouraging teacher figure who channels the inner voice of Beanie Campbell. In a move diametrically opposed to Reeves’, Vaughn actually takes on a more serious character, albeit one with some great lines. In the bathroom with Justin at the debate competition: “Did you see the girls out there?” / “Yeah.” / “Okay, go round them up. Bring them in here.” / “… Men’s room?” / “That’s okay, I’m a teacher. I’m a teacher.” Giving Justin a post-megalomania talking-to: “It’s my professional opinion that you’ve become a monster.” / “I thought you loved me!” / “Don’t make this grandiose.” And so forth.
Even if the film is itself at times as awkward as Justin ever is, maybe isn’t the worst thing in the world—overall Thumbsucker elicits many more wide grins and out-loud laughs than furtive sideways glances. The film’s large ambitions are backed up by a mature attention to small details, and the actors more than make up in talent for what are sometimes overly-archetypal characters. And if the message is at time heavy, at least it’s a good one; as the eventually chain-smoking, again long-haired orthodontist Perry intones at the end: “All we humans can do is guess, try, hope… Don’t fool yourself into thinking you have an answer. The trick is living without an answer.” In other words: “Be excellent to each other.” Sage advice if I ever heard it.
By: Jim Fingal
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