Some of the best movies in new American cinema derive from novels which often don’t get the recognition they deserve. Fight Club (by Chuck Palahniuk); Election (by Tom Perrotta); and About Schmidt (by Louis Begley) all come to mind. Thumbsucker is another example – and first-time writer-director Mike Mills was quick to credit novelist Walter Kirn at the movie’s Sundance premiere. ‘All I did was try to stay true to the novel,’ was his mantra in response to audience questions – even if he did ditch the mormonism.
It’s sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, sort of a coming of age movie: think Garden State, but without the narco-cute. And it all hangs on the performance of newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci as 17-year-old Justin Cobb, a fairly unremarkable teenager save that he still hasn’t kicked the habit of sucking his thumb.
Packed off to see his ‘guru orthodontist’ – an amusing but sincere supporting performance by Keanu Reeves – Justin modifies his behaviour under the influence of hypnosis. But without his emotional crutch, he soon falls into manic behaviour – until he finds an alternative addiction to feed into his insecurity and fear. Of course, as he only dimly begins to perceive, the adults in his life are just as hooked in their own ways.
Spelled out, the movie might sound schematic. The trials and tribulations of suburban adolescents – yup, I think we’ve been there, done that. And we’ve certainly seen the dad who never got over his high school football success before. But Mills has a sound touch. He taps the comic potential of various semi-out-there episodes without pitching the movie into caricature or the dreaded sitcom surrealism. The soundtrack – Polyphonic Spree vs Elliott Smith – wins plenty of cred points (as you’d expect from Mills, who has shot promos for Air, Pulp and Moby, among others).
The movie feels like its discovering something even when it’s treading familiar territory – and that’s a mark of the caliber of the performances: Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, even Vince Vaughn as Justin’s high school debating coach. Of course it’s Pucci’s movie, and even though he spends much of it in a sullen haze he’s a charismatic presence. He even picked up the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival. Definitely someone to watch. Incidentally, you can check out Mike Mills’ blog at www.sonyclassics.com/thumbsucker/blog