This is the debut feature film by director Mike Mills, who today is better known for his 2010 film, Beginners (featuring my one and only love, Ewan McGregor). In Thumbsucker, Lou Taylor Pucci is Justin Cobb, a senior in high school struggling with college applications, familial issues, crushes on girls, and the fact that at age eighteen he still sucks his thumb. When his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) (lol) uses hypnosis to break Justin of his thumbsucking habit, Justin’s world is thrown into chaos as he seeks to redefine himself. Cast also features Tilda Swinton as Justin’s mother, and Vince Vaughn, perhaps against type, as Justin’s debate team coach.
This film is sweet and quirky, although thematically a little all over the place. The characters surrounding Justin are multifaceted and interesting, and each seems to have his or her own story to tell. Justin’s mother Audrey and her infatuation with her favorite TV actor, with whom Justin suspects she is having an affair. His father Mike and the injury that ruined his athletic career. His orthodontist’s fluctuating attitude toward his own New Age philosophies. His debate coach’s strange, inappropriate relationship to his debate team (inviting Justin and the three girls into the men’s bathroom for a pep talk (“It’s all right, I’m a teacher”), expecting Justin to share a hotel room with him instead of with the other students, providing alcohol for the team, etc).
Unfortunately, instead of providing Justin’s story with a rich and realistic backdrop, the other characters actually distract from the main plot. We catch only glimpses of their tangential stories, and we want to know more. The overall effect is chaotic and unfocused, Mills scrambling to link these background stories together and to resolve them in a satisfying way by the end of the film. Some of the stories are resolved too simply – others are only touched upon and are never really resolved at all.
Justin’s journey itself is confusing and winding. He moves from craze to craze, using his newly prescribed Ritalin to become the debate team champion, then moving on to marijuana and sex, until we as viewers all but forget about the initial thumbsucking problem. Each stage is interesting and entertaining, but again, the plot features a lack of focus and cohesion. Every twenty minutes feels like a section of a different film.
That being said, Thumbsucker is funny (certain scenes made me laugh out loud), and there is a lot of humanity in it. Justin is just gawky and self-conscious enough to be believable, while still endearing himself to the viewer with his sincerity and vulnerability. There also is a lot of truth to his relationship with his family – the sweetness, the fights, the strange bickering and confiding between brothers. Swinton is wonderful as the tired but ever-patient mother.
Heartwarming is the word I would use. Tongue-in-cheek, at times. The wrap-up at the end may be a little trite, but the film is undeniably enjoyable, sweet. I didn’t love Beginners either, but I think Mills certainly has potential and I’m interested to see what else he has in store for us.