Thumbsucker (15)

Written by Walter Kirn (novel) and Mike Mills
Directed by Mike Mills
Screening at FACT from 2nd-8th December 2005

Reviewed by Adam Ford

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.

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