Thumbsucker, writer-director Mike Mills’s first feature, was shot in Beaverton, Oregon, a placid, sterile, parochial suburb of Portland. Mills has repeatedly misidentified the town as “Beaverwood,” a mistake that is apt since Beaverton, like many suburban communities, can hardly be said to have an identity of its own. One of the film’s attributes is how well Mills has captured the town’s insularity and the quietly desperate lives such an atmosphere accommodates. Based on a novel by Walter Kim, the film is a sympathetic portrait of an unhappily self-involved, self-uncertain place.
It’s a comedy, of the coming-of-age variety with which the independent American film landscape is currently overpopulated. The protagonist is Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci, best actor, Berlin, and excellent), a diminutive seventeen-year-old boy who still sucks his thumb, to the indulgence of his mother, Audrey, and the clichéd consternation of his father, Mike. (The cliché belongs to the character, not to the film.) Audrey is a nurse; Mike manages a sporting goods store. In their own ways, both are backward like their elder son. Audrey dreams of winning a date with her favorite TV personality; Mike is still nursing the long-ago disappointment of the professional football career that did not materialize due to injury. Mentally, he is stuck in high school, where he was a star bedecked with great expectations. Unbeknownst to him, his wife is happy she did not end up with a pro player, but he is convinced that he failed her by not becoming one, just as he failed himself and everyone else. Figuratively speaking, poor, big Mike still sucks his thumb.
Marriages are mysterious things, and many do tote all kinds of secrets—secrets that partners keep from the world; secrets that partners keep from each other. But the one I just described sounds pretty contrived to me. It is the sort of secret that would have tumbled out, or more gently come to light, years earlier. It is hard to believe that the Cobbs’s secret—that Mike has become a man with whom Audrey is dissatisfied because he never figured out he was the man she really wanted just the way he was—is left intact in the film. Mike never emerges from his sense of failure, while Audrey’s job promotion compensates for some of her unhappiness at home. Why has Audrey not divulged to her husband what she so easily tells her son? Or has she, and he hasn’t believed her? Can’t she see how important it is to tell her husband the truth?
Much of the humor of the film derives from the to-do that is made of Justin’s harmless practice of thumbsucking. At school, where to reveal it would be too uncool, Justin is shown several times behind the locked door of a bathroom stall, his pants down around his visible ankles, where he is presumably moving his bowels but, we know, really sucking his thumb. The stall is his retreat, and this comical punctuation is a high point of the film’s visual wit. Overall, though, the visual dimension of this film is minimal; plot and dialogue are forced to carry most of the content that the images ought to express. As writer-directors go, Mills is more writer than director, and thus Thumbsucker is mostly doomed from the start as a serious piece of work. It is charming and funny, but it could have accomplished a good deal more.
Justin, prescribed Ritalin, becomes a champion regional debater for his school. The film scores good points for showing how this ill-advised “solution” and others only end up making matters worse for the boy in terms of his behavior. The once sweet boy becomes cold and arrogant. If only people would just let him suck his thumb! On the other hand (pardon), Justin is truly beset with adolescent problems that require some sort of remedy.
Apparently his thumbsucking is causing chronic difficulties inside his mouth, and the best scenes in the film are those between Justin and his orthodontist, Dr. Perry Lyman, hilariously played by Keanu Reeves, possibly as a parody of the shrink that Robin Williams plays in Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997). Even Lyman comes to admit that he impressed upon Justin a lot of “hippie psychobabble” while hypnotizing the boy and attempting to convert Justin’s oral fixation into a meditative fixation on his “power animal.” (Justin: “Aren’t you just my orthodontist?” Perry: “I like to think I am more than that.”) The exchanges of these two odd characters, guru and disciple and then, later, deposed guru and rebellious disciple, clarify the film’s main theme: the extent to which, insecure, we are affected and influenced by others. In Thumbsucker, both kids and adults have unstable egos, and everyone is more or less taking everyone else’s advice. The one exception seems to be Justin’s younger brother, Joel, who may be TV-sitcom glibly too much of a grown-up.
Indeed, the scenes that Perry and Justin share, both in the dentist’s office and outside, intrigue by their lack of realism and their heady suggestion of psychological realism. Is Perry Lyman a figment of Justin’s imagination, a fiction in his head that Justin privately uses to sound out alternative possibilities for working his way out of his problem(s)? I must leave to others whether Perry’s professional diagnosis that Justin’s thumbsucking is the “underlying cause” of his dental problems holds water (or saliva); offhand, this sounds like Justin’s adolescent anxiety to me. What is undeniable, however, is that nothing about Perry seems real. There is no dental assistant by his side when he works on Justin, the quiet insularity of their encounters is unearthly, and, with each new appearance of his, Perry seems to have replaced the philosophy he formerly tried to impose on Justin, responding with absurd wholeheartedness to Justin’s remarks much as Justin has been affected by his remarks. His nonsense about calling upon one’s imagined “power animal” seems the tip-off that Dr. Perry Lyman is unreal and, instead, Justin’s mental construct; and the pun hidden in his name, “Lie Man,” does nothing to dispel the notion. We also learn that Mike is jealous of Perry’s superior athletic prowess in various community competitions. Through Perry, then, we see how (1) Justin feels about himself, (2) how Justin feels about his father, and (3) how Justin feels his father feels about himself. Reeves flawlessly negotiates all these levels of Justin’s fantasy—and, as a bonus, provides a wonderful sense of the comical side of Justin that Justin otherwise dares not express.
Justin has a one-sided romance, but this adds little to the film. His farewell to his folks before flying off to college in New York City accounts for an exceptionally poignant scene—one that gives Mike the best line in the film. He tells his son, “I was just getting used to you.”
Tilda Swinton, who also executive-produced, is very touching as Audrey, who provides the surest index of Justin’s adolescent limitations, for Mills permits us to see that she has dimensions to her life that her elder son neither guesses nor can fathom. Swinton, looking terrific, gives the best performance in the film. I am sorry to say, because he is a Brooklyn boy and, by all accounts, a hardworking, decent individual, Vincent D’Onofrio is all thumbs as Mike Cobb.
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