Watch the trailer (at apple.com).
Sometimes a movie works so well, surrounds you so completely, it creates a safe, womb-like bubble. It is all-encompassing while the movie unfolds; difficult to extricate yourself from when the film ends and nearly impossible to reflect on afterward. Thumbsucker, Mike Mills' funny, gentle, intelligent and (so very) warm feature film debut continued to radiate long after the movie screen went dark. A week later, I can still feel the glow.
Yes, at its most basic level, Thumbsucker is a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old boy who sucks his thumb. It is about the effect Justin Cobb's (Lou Pucci) thumb sucking has on his family and how it affects his interactions with other kids at school. But more than that, it is about each character's unique experience of their shared reality. Their overlapping perceptions create a complex mix of tangled emotions, expectations and delusions, each bumping into and subtly changing the other. Thumbsucker is about private anxieties and disappointments, and the secret hopes and realizations we dare not share (even with ourselves).
As Justin stumbles toward adulthood, he undergoes a host of approaches to help him "give up the thumb." He is surrounded by caring and intelligent adults who are forced to face their own very personal insecurities as they assist him in overcoming his own. Justin's father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) shames; his mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton) cajoles; a "guru orthodontist" (Keanu Reaves) hypnotizes him. Finally, the faculty at Justin's high school (including Vince Vaughan as the debate coach, who, like all the other actors, is incredibly grounded and funny and real) suggests ADHD medication, which makes him into a keenly-focused monster, who joins the debate team and becomes a master manipulator.
The film perfectly captures the narcotic drift of an upscale suburb in the Pacific Northwest. The town is covered with the signifiers of prosperity and sprawl, new cement house pads and unfinished construction sites dot the landscape. Interiors are thick, beige and overstuffed -- it is the comfort of the lost.
Thumbsucker is made up of one subtle, perfectly-rendered moment after another -- of complex interpersonal relationships that get more mangled, manic, and emotional as the film moves humorously forward.
The story of a boy trying to give up his "security blanket" reminded me how much I seek comfort in films. I use them as a refuge, as narcotics, as a place to be overcome with laughter, to give myself freely to tears. You get both with this film as characters struggle to live without answers and one family lets go of its first born, after shepherding him into adulthood.
Also, it's pretty amazing that someone found a way to make use of the Polyphonic Spree. As a band, I cannot stomach them. The cult choir, chanting banal pronouncements of joy designed to inspire the same in listeners, is more irritating than inspirational. But Thumbsucker makes good use of their sound, which perfectly expresses the manic joy of a teenager on speed (um, Ritalin) and their treacle is counter-balanced with a healthy dose of tunes by Elliott Smith, indie rock's infamous depressive.