Thumbsucker is the quintessential art film. It’s a character-driven piece of cinema that tells the story of teenager Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) and the dramatic twists and turns he experiences in life when he decides to give up sucking his thumb. It’s a movie that has been written, shot and edited in such a manner that once it finishes an audience is left with multiple interpretations about the film and what it signifies. The film is a layered experience with many themes and while these benefit the film greatly they also spread it too thin.
Thumbsucker is a film about addiction and identity. Justin is a teen defined by his thumb-sucking ‘problem’ and even though it may not be the most mature activity for an adolescent man to be involved in, it also provides him with a form of escape from the realities of the world. It’s his coping mechanism; much to the disgust of his almost-turned-pro football father (Vincent D’Onofrio). But once his esoteric hippie orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) hypnotises him into believing his thumb tastes like Echinacea (a native American herbal medicine) Justin is forced to find new ways to cope. As he moves from prescription medicine to dope we are given glimpses of the person Justin really is and who he might become as he tries to fill the void that his thumb once did.
Music video director Mike Mills (Moby, Pulp, Air) has retained not only story elements from the novel by Walter Kirn but also certain structural aspects that we associate with the novel format in general. Thumbsucker is like watching a book. It develops at its own pace – dictated by the decisions Justin makes – and there is never any great urgency to get anywhere or do anything in particular. This might present problems for those audiences who are accustomed to more plot-driven narratives – at times the film could have used a good kick in the pants – but once you have resigned yourself to the journey it’s not a bad ride.
Thumbsucker has a stellar cast – just scan the column on the right to get an idea of the big names involved – and the film is definitely stronger for it. Keanu Reeves often takes flack for being a one-dimensional performer who sounds like a surfer/stoner. His performance style may not be extremely varied but I like the guy and Thumbsucker presents him with a role that is drenched in tongue-in-cheek allusions to films like Point Blank and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The combination of the serious and professional nature of an orthodontist with the out-there ramblings of a free spirit healer suit Reeves perfectly and the film has some great moments as a result. Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio are in more reserved roles than we are accustomed to seeing them in but as Justin’s parents they bring a certain amount of warmth to the film and Vince Vaughn, as debate teacher Mr. Geary, is possibly the most restrained I’ve ever seen him.
Thumbsucker, as some critics have already claimed, is a film that lacks a certain bite. It’s slow and won’t be to everyone’s liking but it is by no means a bad film. It could have been a bit more exciting, certain aspects should have been refined or cut but this is a journey of self-discovery and I guess you can’t really rush that. Go in knowing this and you won’t be disappointed.