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Friday, Sept. 15, 2006
Indie land: An eternal home for kids
"Thumbsucker," the new American indie by noted video director Mike Mills (Beastie Boys, Beck, Sonic Youth, etc.), covers some very familiar ground, namely, that of dysfunctional suburbia, with a teenage protagonist on meds, and a highly sympathetic view of being a high-school misfit. Mills has obviously seen "Donnie Darko" -- one scene, where the protagonist drifts through his high-school corridors is an exact quote of "Darko" -- and while "Thumbsucker" never hits that movie's highs, neither does it plumb the troughs of another close cousin, "The United States Of Leland."
"Thumbsucker," as its title suggests, concerns itself with an insecure 17-year-old named Justin (Lou Pucci, channeling the young Johnny Depp), who has the embarrassing habit of sucking his thumb to cope with stress. In a sense, this is a perfect metaphor for this school of indie filmmaking (and much alt-rock as well), which is constantly retreating back to childhood as some sort of refuge from the corrupt world of adults.
Justin's parents, Audrey and Mike Cobb, are played -- in an inspired casting pairup -- by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio. Mike, a football star who lost his career to injury and has spent a lifetime having to "deal with it," harangues Justin for his thumbsucking, calls him pathetic and humiliates him. Audrey cancels this out by being overindulgent of her son, while getting caught up in her job at a rehab clinic and entering a contest to win a date with a TV hunk (played by Benjamin Bratt.) The film is quite good at highlighting how Justin, like most teenagers, resents his parents' quirks while expecting them to accept his own.
Justin visits a "holistic" orthodontist named Perry (Keanu Reeves), who tries to cure his thumbsucking through hypnotherapy. Perry is a New Age spewer of psychobabble, urging Justin to "find your power animal." In a brilliant bit of self-parody, Reeves utters these vaguely profound aphorisms with the same comic-book gravitas of his "Matrix" persona Neo. Reeves is even better later in the film when Perry loses faith in his own hype, and decides instead to get in touch with his inner vindictiveness.
At school, Justin's teachers diagnose him as having Attention Deficit Disorder. He's prescribed Ritalin, which indeed changes his personality from inward to outward with alarming speed. Justin becomes the star on the school debating team, but his counselor, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn, this generation's Bill Murray), is afraid he's just slipped into a new, manic extreme. Justin's also attracted to Rebecca (Kelli Garner), a girl on his debating team, but blows it due to hiding his secret shame.
Various subplots develop, but the long and the short of it is, hey, everyone's got problems, and maybe relying on thumbsucking isn't so bad compared to relying on drugs, plastic spirituality, or hopeless crushes. As Perry puts it: "That's all we humans can do; is try, hope. But don't fool yourself into thinking you've got the answer. The trick is living without the answer." It's a good sentiment, but deployed clumsily, like so much of this film's suburban search for meaning in life.
Mills has gone on record (Salon.com) as hating "American Beauty," a film that is very much "Thumbsucker" 's progenitor. Mills' reason is that he feels "American Beauty " was "reprehensible" for laughing at its messed-up suburban characters (a charge more often leveled at Todd Solondz's "Happiness"). Given the sympathetic view of all its characters -- teenage Lolita and middle-aged schlep seducer alike -- that "American Beauty" adopted by the film's end, this charge by Mills only reflects someone who doesn't understand that all comedy involves laughing at people a bit, even if you like them. Indeed, "Thumbsucker" suffers from a lack of wit. The film is more in love with an overall self-consciously "quirky" vibe, something that will definitely appeal to Lasse Hallstrom fans ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules"), but makes this critic gag.
This feeling is only reinforced by the film's weakest point, its soundtrack, which features the music of that faux-gospel choir The Polyphonic Spree. Their sound is cloyingly twee and devoid of irony, and when the choir kicks in with bubbly lyrics like, "Hey/It's time/To move away and shine" when Justin moves off to college, one longs for a director like Solondz to drop a toad in this treacle. It's amazingly overearnest for a guy, like Mills, who moved from Sonic Youth vids to Nike and Gap commercials without blinking an eyelid. Anyone who is such a disbeliever in the existential difference between underground and mainstream must end up with a film like "Thumbsucker," superficially indie but with little bite indeed.