Written by Walter Kirn (novel) and Mike Mills
Directed by Mike Mills
Screening at FACT from 2nd-8th December 2005
What would happen if you took a spoonful of Garden State, mixed
it with a sachet of Donnie Darko, and then boiled the resulting
muddle for 93 minutes? Well, you’d get Thumbsucker, yet another
film about a suburban American misfit growing up aimlessly and medicated
out of his mind.
Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) is just that misfit, and the habitual thumb
sucker of the title. At seventeen, his voice is breaking and he is starting
to notice girls, but feels desperately lonely and inferior to the other
kids. Thumb sucking gets him through the night, though his ‘being
weird’ draws protests of varying venom from his father (Vincent
D’Onofrio), mother (Tilda Swinton), and younger brother (Chase Offerle).
Justin is caught between a desire to put away his childish things and
his fear of the adult world. But then, so are many of the adults that
surround him. Dad insists on being called ‘Mike’ and wonders
what would have happened if he’d made it as a pro footballer, Mum
is called ‘Audrey’ and has a crush on a TV star. Even the
dentist (a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves) is still searching - chain-smoking
his way through new age philosophies. “We’re all just scared
animals”, he observes, puffing away.
But if the characters have problems, the film seems to have an identity
crisis of its own. There are serious issues here, but there is also humour.
That’s fine, except debut director Mike Mills doesn’t seem
to know how to mix the two. Potentially funny scenes screech to a halt
as Mills slams on the breaks. He wants to explore how teenagers are prescribed
Ritalin for having such catchall symptoms as ’making mistakes’,
but he also wants us to chuckle at girls being in the boys’ toilets
and wow at Darko-lite dream sequences. We are left with a flimsy
and meandering sprawl that is deeply unsatisfactory. Of course, sucking
is a baby’s natural reflex, but it is also the natural reflex of
some cooler-than-thou American indie filmmakers.