Let me for the moment put aside the illusion of critical authority and be frank with you: I don’t know if you’re going to like this movie. I know we critics come off like awful blowhards, pontificating loudly about how you should love what we love, and hate what we hate (see: Waiting ..., Austin Chronicle
, Oct. 7, 2005), but let’s forget that for now. I repeat: I don’t know if you’re going to like this movie. It’s the kind of movie that lives and dies by a viewer’s own idiosyncrasies, and Thumbsucker
found my soft spots for sure. Based on Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel, Thumbsucker
details roughly a year in the life of Justin Cobb, an Oregon-based 17-year-old and lifelong thumbsucker. Along the way, Justin (Pucci) tries to kick the habit, gets diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, falls for a girl with a peculiar seduction technique, and fights – a lot – with his well-meaning but exasperated parents (Swinton and D’Onofrio, both wonderfully affecting in uncommon roles for them). Although Thumbsucker (from music video vet Mike Mills) never feels uncontrolled, its plotting realistically mimics a teenager’s adriftness and tendency toward hairpin-turn mood shifts. At 17, a person can rocket from bewildered to euphoric to murderous in a matter of moments, and Thumbsucker
mostly captures the spirit of the age. There are, however, the occasional absurdities and plot coincidences that I suspect played more organically in the novel form; bigger-picture emotions and themes also have the feel of being only thinly traced from their literary origins. A recurring fantasy motif never pans out, and the score, by Tim DeLaughter’s Polyphonic Spree, is dangerously close to twee. Mills’ debut is imperfect, all right, and yet: There’s something there. I can’t pinpoint the moment in which Thumbsucker
had me in its clutches, but it was revelatory, like waking up one morning and realizing the nice boy next door had slow-burned into that thing that keeps you up at night. The same might be said for Pucci’s Justin. His isn’t a showboating part – Justin is no Igby or Donnie Darko – but he quietly burrows in under the skin and stays put. Pucci – who won Best Actor accolades at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals – begins the film with a voice forever breaking, morphs into a falsely confident Ritalin freak, and ends somewhere else, beaten down but with thumb stuck firmly in mouth. Almost improbably, the heart swells. I wish him nothing but the best.