Thumbsucker Lives Up To The Half Of Its Title
We need to set one thing straight before we start. We fully admit that we contributed to the pre-release hype of director Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker in these very pages (“Junebug,” Film, Sept. 14). Like many moviegoers, Miranda July’s tremendous Me and You and Everyone We Know raised expectations of continued indie-movie discoveries. And now, having seen Thumbsucker, we need to take this moment and apologize sincerely for getting your hopes up for this fair-to-middling feature.
Thumbsucker brings us into the world of high-school fuck-up Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), a bright kid with real problems focusing his mind and relating to others. He calls his dysfunctional parents by their first names—failed athlete Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) and celebrity-obsessed rehab-clinic nurse Audrey (Tilda Swinton)—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have positive, healthy, close relationships. He also suffers from intense awkwardness with girls, particularly love interest Rebecca (Kelli Garner); a bizarre rapport with his orthodontist, wannabe philosopher/guru Perry (Keanu Reeves, whose performance’s ridiculousness is only matched by the lines he is forced to deliver), who is always in competition with Mike; and a habit, much to Mike’s disgust, of sucking on his thumb for solace.
Some of these problems begin to turn around when a school counselor recommends Justin medicate his attention-span issues, after which he becomes the star of the debate team—formerly Rebecca’s domain—where he buddies up with debate coach Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn). He also gets a second chance with Rebecca, who has started running with their school’s stoners, a clique they both once shunned. But neither situation stays stable for long.
Mills’ previous work—music videos, shorts, and documentaries, including 2001’s Paperboys—reflected both a sense of humor and an ability to nail a certain ethereal mood. Such subtly largely eludes Thumbsucker, which isn’t to say that Mills doesn’t try. He aims here for the sort of emotional terrain carved out by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which gracefully articulated some specific, complex feelings that we hadn’t seen on screen quite that way before—the serendipitous, necessarily temporary meeting of kindred spirits in a faraway land that has something to do with love, yet is not love per se. Thumbsucker tries to make us feel for characters going through equally micro-specific emotions: among others, conflicted feelings for someone who puts down your father at a time when your own relationship with Dad suffers; and the discovery that an activity you took up to impress someone else comes to matter more to you than it does to them.
Unfortunately, Thumbsucker doesn’t inhabit this lofty expressionism; we only register that the attempt was made, without being emotionally touched by it in any way. Paperboys, ostensibly a documentary but really more of a tone poem, did a much better job of making us know the people on-screen and feel something for them and their surroundings. The familiar faces put before us in Thumbsucker and the words they’re made to speak rarely coalesce into real, believable people. Characters such as Reeves’ Perry and D’Onofrio’s Mike never ring true, and therefore neither do their relationships to each other—a sad observation to make about a movie trying to find its heart in its characters’ ever-shifting feelings for each other.
We’re left with a few funny and touching moments. Vaughn, although (or perhaps because) he’s more reined in than usual, turns in a number of funny bits. Thumbsucker’s most successful moments come when the debate team heads to a competition—with Justin as its star—and the somewhat nerdy squad members get a little rowdy and loose, initially with coach consent, in their hotel room the night before the competition.
But it’s just not enough. Thumbsucker joins a long list of mediocre post-2000 dark dramedies—see Igby Goes Down, Happy Endings, Junebug—that, while mildly diverting, just can’t muster an ounce of bona fide movie magic, let alone the rarefied brand recently offered by Coppola and July. If flicks such as Igby floated your boat, there’s a solid chance this one will, as well. The rest of us should evade the hype and hold out for the exceptional movie that is clearly within Mills’ capabilities to produce.