Directed by Mike Mills. Starring Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner, Chase Offerle. (2005, R, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 7, 2005
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.