I thought the phrase “inspired by a true story” consisted of the most horrifying words I would encounter this weekend. That’s only because no one told me that “Music performed by the Polyphonic Spree” would be emblazoned on the opening credits of Thumbsucker. I know a lot of people hold a different point of view, but the Polyphonic Spree will send me scrambling for the exit faster than you can say, “Mannheim Steamroller.” To put it mildly, their unique sound prompts me to want to take a hostage.
So writer-director Mike Mills must have done something really right with his debut feature for it to have ended up being a movie I genuinely liked (not that I’ll be buying the soundtrack, mind).
This film adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel about 17-year-old high school student Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci, Personal Velocity) trying to break himself of the habit of sucking his thumb does wear its indie-film status on its sleeve, and it does have that occasional sense of forced quirkiness that mars far too many such “small” movies. But the film wins out in the end, thanks to some wonderful characterizations, happy casting and a degree of weighty insight that may not immediately be apparent.
Thumbsucker‘s great strength isn’t in its quirky comedy and occasional effortless sense of fantasy (though much of that is well-judged and very funny), but in its characters, all of whom are constantly surprising the viewer by not being what they seem — just like real people. To have such an outre (if far from unheard of) premise that’s held together with plot points that are often quite fanciful, and boasting personality casting in the supporting roles, there’s an element of almost heartbreaking reality that underscores everything about the film. And it’s that element, which sneaks up on the viewer in a cumulative fashion as the film progresses, that raises Thumbsucker to the realm of at least near-greatness. It’s the kind of power that may not be apparent while you’re watching the film, but it lingers in the mind long after.
Part of Thumbsucker‘s point is that Justin travels the well-worn path of so many with a habit — trading one addiction for another. His bizarre orthodontist cum shrink, Perry (Keanu Reeves), tries breaking the habit with hippied-up New Age psychobabble involving Justin getting in touch with his “power animal.” It works to a point, but only serves to make Justin even more unhappy and irritable. The school diagnoses him with ADHD and coerces his parents (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio) into putting him on Ritalin, which causes a complete turnaround, propelling him to become the star of the school’s debating team — and creating a self-centered monster in the process. When Justin rejects this, he takes to the self-medicating world of becoming a stoner, and so on.
It’s impossible in a short synopsis to even begin to detail the richness of detail with which the film is imbued. Suffice it to say that by the end of Thumbsucker, everything we think we know turns out to have at least another side — or more — than we imagined.
What’s astonishing is that none of the characters are simplistic, though nearly all of them start out giving that appearance. Consider: We’re given to understand that Justin’s mother is unhappy in her home life and dreaming of TV star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt); his father seems bitter over an injury that cut short a football career; his little brother (newcomer Chase Offerle) comes across as just another wisecracking kid. But all of these things are just so much surface that’s peeled away by the end of the film. Even Perry the orthodontist isn’t finally what he initially seemed.
It’s tempting to pigeonhole Thumbsucker as another movie depicting a disaffected teen in bittersweet comedic terms, and the film is that, but it’s also as much about the adults that surround that teen. It’s hardly accidental that so many of the grown-ups in Justin’s life — mother, father, orthodontist — insist on being called by their first names. Uncomfortable with their own aging and their status in his life, they long to be his contemporary — and that’s what makes them just as much thumb-suckers as Justin. And, in the end, aren’t we all? Rated R for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens, language and a disturbing image.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke