Thumbsucker

Movie Review by Dan Spiers

Starring: Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Keanu Reeves

Director: Mike Mills

Have you sucked thumb? I did, and was doing so until, brace yourself, the age of eleven. But this is nothing compared to Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), the central character of THUMBSUCKER, who, despite his best efforts, is still slurping away like a suckling calf at the age of 17.

Written by directorial debutant Mike Mills, THUMBSUCKER is about the later stages of Justin’s adolescence. But it is also about his father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is deeply ashamed of his son’s addiction and mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton) who he fears is having an affair with a TV cop.

Whatsmore, Justin has a ‘holistic orthodontist’, Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves) who espouses cod spirituality whilst attending to the damage done by the thumb. “Are you ready” he asks, “to let go of your thumb?” and although Justin is clearly not, he places him under hypnosis in order that his beloved opposable tastes of echinacea.

The consequence of this is a bout of sustained peculiarity during which Justin is diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and prescribed Ritalin. Whoosh! Our introverted hero becomes a hyper-alert, pupil-dilated, super-student. But whilst the debating world salutes his genius, and his teacher Mr Geary (Vince Vaughn) gets increasingly intimidated, Justin becomes gradually more confused.

And he is not the only one. Those around him, regardless of age, stumble around in search of who they are. The beautiful thing about the film being that this process is not frenetic, nor over dramatized, but naturalistic.

From the direction, which consists of long, slow, sweeping shots, to the cameras indulgence in thumb sucking, to the sounds of Perry’s hypnotic, hippy drawl, everything takes time. Even the suburban environment chosen, with endless blocks of housing and streets that keep on going, maintain the same, steady rhythm.

But the Cobb family represents the turmoil going on beneath the surface. Justin’s parents seem to have long forgotten how to communicate with each other and though disaster seems imminent they maintain the same patterns of behaviour.

Audrey, beautifully played by Tilda Swinton remains emotionally distant, her porcelain skin resolutely disguising that going on within. She is still trying to find fulfilment at work, but beside her, Mike appears completely impotent, fully resigned to the mundanity of his working life and to the loss of his partner. Both, to varying extents, struggle to be honest with themselves and each other about what they want and who they want to be.

But the story is Justin’s and he has all the promise of youth on his side. With a soundtrack by the Polyphonic Spree the overall tone of the film is unmistakably positive and ultimately triumphant.

The two cameos provided by Vaughn and Reeves maintain a seam of humour throughout. Reeves is hilarious (intentionally!?) mocking the faux spirituality of THE MATRIX trilogy and it is his advice to Justin that lies at the heart of the film. For Perry’s conclusion is that there is no grand answer. All Justin can do is find out who he is and be true to himself.

THUMBSUCKER is a visually distinctive, thought provoking and funny film. Mike Mills has managed to produce a movie that signposts the difficulties posed by life, but more importantly contrasted them with the possibilities that burst forth every step of the way. It is the latter which is dominant and that is a lovely place to be.

5 out of 6 stars

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