I haven’t read Thumbsucker, Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel about an immature teen growing up in a dysfunctional Midwestern family, and I’m not sure I want to. Reading the book might destroy my affection for Mike Mills’ film adaptation, one of the funniest, most melancholy, and ultimately touching films I’ve seen recently. The film has flaws, to be sure; its beginning is inauspicious, having the look and tone of a hundred other indie films about suburban anomie, but in its unpredictable plot, smart dialogue, human insight, and especially the performances of its cast, it is an indelible portrait of lost people and how they come to live with being lost.
The titular oral compulsive is Justin Cobb, 17-year-old son to Mike and Audrey, whom he calls by their first names because “Dad” makes Mike feel old and “Mom” makes Mike think of Audrey as old. Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) tries to hold on to his youth because he feels robbed: A knee injury intervened just as he was about to enter the NFL draft. He clings to his past as best he can, working in a sporting goods store and competing in local athletic events, always a sore loser. Like so many movie fathers (and more than a few real-life ones) big, physical, aggressive Mike can’t understand his small, introverted, passive son, and he’s particularly disturbed by the lingering thumbsucking habit. Having already paid for one set of braces, Mike isn’t anxious for Justin to need another.
Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is more understanding; she’s a quiet, recessive person herself. She works as a registered nurse — while we see little of her work life, she gives an impression of brisk efficiency — but she really lives in her head, dreaming of celebrities and Hollywood glamour. Audrey is a bright but unambitious woman who settled, and her fantasies allow her to deal with the tedium of her reality. When we first meet her, she’s in her kitchen trying to write an essay — “My Most Distinctive Feature” — to enter a cereal-box contest for a date with Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), a popular TV star. It’s a painful image: a plain, 40ish mother of two entering a contest for teenagers. Swinton, a naturally thin woman with striking if unconventional features, has gone dowdy for the role, emphasizing her paleness and incipient middle-aged belly. Her relationship with Justin has oedipal overtones: She clearly relates to her son in ways that she can’t relate to her husband, asking his help in writing her contest essay and taking him shopping when she wants to pick out a new dress for her application photo. She’s caught in the middle of three conflicting desires: She wants to be a good mother to her troubled adolescent but feels almost as lost as he is, she needs Justin’s understanding and approval, but she can also be frustratingly inattentive, distracted as she is by her fantasy life.
Lou Pucci, who plays Justin, is making his debut as a lead actor, his only previous screen credit being a small role in Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. Justin is a scrawny, timorous adolescent, almost grown yet towered over by the unusually tall adults in the cast (Swinton is 5’11”, D’Onofrio 6’4”, and Vince Vaughn, who plays Mr. Geary, Justin’s debate coach, is 6’5”). Pucci has a slender, delicate face; long, lank, dirty-looking hair; and wounded eyes that communicate Justin’s constant unease. His thumbsucking seems an obvious metaphor for masturbation, but it’s more than that: a metaphor for every secret, shameful thing a teenager might do but also a palliative for his overwhelming anxieties. It’s also a strategy for stoppering the things he can’t say to his reticent parents and oblivious peers; when Justin’s new-agey orthodontist (a comically smarmy Keanu Reeves) hypnotizes him out of his thumb fixation, his repressed emotions become a crippling weight and eventually explode. After Mr. Geary and a school administrator call a meeting with Mike and Audrey to suggest that Justin’s disorderly behavior is due to ADHD, he begins taking Ritalin, which focuses his manic energy and allows him to become a master debater (ha ha).
Justin’s story touches on most of the hallmarks of the coming-of-age genre: sexual initiation, subsequent heartbreak, public humiliation, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, etc. What raises it above the standard are the particular, idiosyncratic ways in which the tropes are addressed and the ways in which the film gives us glimpses into other lives. Writer/director Mike Mills, who comes to film, like seemingly all the new directors, from music videos, introduces few characters that he doesn’t develop; we get to see the ways they have constructed (or destroyed) their lives, we feel that we understand more of this world than the plight of one troubled kid.
Audrey is a terribly rich supporting character, more interesting really than Justin, and Swinton is amazing to watch. She creates incredible empathy with the character; she’s so expressive that every time she was onscreen I found myself with a lump in my throat, even if she was just sorting mail. (Having been raised by two strong maternal figures myself, I admit I’m a bit of a sucker for mother-son relationships in movies, but the way Swinton captures the conflicting greed and generosity of maternal love really has to be seen to be believed.) It’s strange to see D’Onofrio, who is gratingly actorish and hyperverbal each week on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” playing a character who can’t articulate anything, but he makes it work, actually coming close to underacting.
Though Vaughn seems initially miscast — this is the kind of squirmy, little-guy role that he couldn’t bring off in Psycho — he makes his large frame work for the character, a small man trapped in an outsized physique that he doesn’t quite connect with; he’s as confused by his own adult body as Justin and his other adolescent students are by theirs. Like the other characters, he’s divided by competing impulses, in his case between the desire to lead and instruct his students and the need to be liked and accepted by them. Newcomer Chase Offerle, who plays Joel, Mike and Audrey’s younger son, has a natural, relaxed delivery that helps bring off some of the film’s funniest lines. And Kelli Garner, who plays Rebecca Crane, the object of Justin’s unrequited affection, captures both insufferable adolescent high-mindedness and burgeoning libidinousness with equal conviction. Even Keanu Reeves, whom I excoriated a few months back for his wooden performance in Constantine, is effective in his small but crucial role.
As good as Mills is with his cast, he’s also quite sly with the camera, without the heavy-handed flourishes common to directors who’ve worked previously in music videos. He develops audience empathy and intimacy gradually; we enter the characters’ world slowly, initially seeing much of it in medium or long shots that may glide around the space before settling on their subject, but progressing to the point that most of the third act is shot in close-up. He’s also adept at creating the film’s wistful tone, helped out by sad, longing songs by the late Elliot Smith and The Polyphonic Spree and original music by Tim DeLaughter.
Thumbsucker’s surface is melancholy, but it’s leavened by mordant humor and kind of Zen-like fatalism. Its themes — that in life there are no easy answers and that becoming an adult is a process of accepting that — are made too explicit for their own good, but if the film has to have overt “messages,” they’re as good as any. Ignore the preachiness as best you can and go for the smart dialogue and the thoughtful, nuanced performances. They’re worth putting up with the rest.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Thumbsucker / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()