Based on a novel by Walter Kirn, the movie directed by Mike Mills revolves around Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), a shy 17-year old in a family of four in suburban Oregon. He has a persistent thumb sucking habit that his father (Vincent D’Onofrio) disapproves of, and that has previously led to major orthodontic repair. He addresses his parents by their first names (Mike and Audrey) due to his father’s insecurity of ageing. His mother (Tilda Swinton), a registered nurse, begins an idle fascination with actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), entering a contest to win a date with the star. Audrey insists vigorously that it is “innocent fun”, but is inordinately concerned with looking attractive for the contest.
Justin struggles on his school’s debate team, led by Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), which he joined to get closer to smart, attractive environmentalist Rebecca (Kelli Garner). He tries to start a relationship with her, but she rejects him after he cannot open up to her about his thumb sucking habit.
At a regular checkup, his dentist Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves) indicates he can tell that Justin is still sucking his thumb, and attempts hypnosis, coaching Justin to find his power animal (a deer), and suggesting that his thumb will taste like echinacea. This works, and Justin finds his thumb distasteful, but falls deeper into frustration without the crutch. After conspiring with his younger brother, Joel (Chase Offerle), to disrupt Dr. Lyman in a bicycle race with Justin’s father, his school counsellor prods the Cobbs to give him Ritalin. While his parents wring their hands over the idea, Justin insists that he needs the help.
Almost immediately after beginning treatment, Justin begins to have elevated energy, confidence, and focus. He begins to excel on the debate team, unseating Rebecca from the star position, who quits debate team and drifts into the stoner crowd. Justin’s new-found aggressiveness nets the debate team repeated awards. Simultaneously, he begins to challenge the neuroses of the adults around him, particularly for their struggles with ageing. With a somewhat deceitful cover letter, he applies to NYU, in spite of his mother’s insistence he go to college closer to home.
After his ill-prescribed Ritalin leads him to ramble in circles and lose the state debate championship, he quits the debate team, throws away the pills, and seeks out Rebecca to hook him up with pot. During repeated smoking incursions, Rebecca routinely blindfolds him and engages in heavy petting, which Justin interprets as a relationship. After reaching third base, he broaches the subject, and Rebecca rejects him, considering the acts as merely her own sexual exploration. He quits both her and the drugs.
Both Justin and his father suspect that Audrey is having an affair with Schramm, after she is transferred to a celebrity rehab facility where Schramm has been committed. Attempting to catch his mother in the act, he instead meets Schramm sneaking a smoke in the bushes, and learns the unromantic truth. The next day, he receives an acceptance letter from NYU.
At a final visit to Perry, the doctor reveals to Justin his discovery that thumb sucking is not a medically debilitating problem, that everyone has their own flaws, and nobody has all the answers; in fact, learning to live without having the answers is (perhaps) the answer. On his flight to New York, Justin dreams of reaching his goal of being a TV anchor, “sharing the truth with the world”. He wakes up after sleep-talking to find his thumb in his mouth, and an attractive girl smiling at him. Slightly embarrassed but self-confident, he introduces himself.
In 2005, Lou Pucci received a Special Jury Price at the Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for his performance in Thumbsucker, and Mike Mills received The Guardian New Directors Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival for this movie.
Though the plot itself is apparently not overly original – it is a teen angst drama giving the viewer a picture of a young man and his family at a difficult time in their lives and how they relate and cope with the situation. -, this is not the depiction of the typical teenage coming of age as interpreted by Hollywood, and the movie creatively explores issues of identity, self-worth, achievement, family dynamics and so many other elements of life that are difficult to articulate.
What’s wonderful about the movie is that it isn’t about the thumbsucking problem. It’s about the kid with the thumbsucking problem. He lives in this dreary old town that could be anywhere, and the lead character is so universal, every kid who’s ever felt alienated, rejected, isolated, different, and awkward can totally relate with this character. And this is essentially what makes the movie work – along with the good ensemble Mike Mills assembled for it-, it doesn’t fly for everybody, but if you get into the world of that lead character the movie is magical and moving.
Thumbsucker makes a valid point about how easy it is to prescribe drugs for what seems to be afflicting Justin: Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, what those pills are doing are creating a false security blanket for the young man, who awakens in time to realize the drug he is taking a form of “speed”.
Lou Pucci is brilliant in this movie, he doesn’t overact, as is the inclination for so many young actors, but goes with a subtle, powerful silent performance, and he’s supported incredibly well by an ensemble cast that delivers a phenomenal performance all around. Keanu Reeves as the dentist, Benjamin Bratt as a totally weird drug addict actor and Vince Vaughn as Justin’s teacher give some laughter to the otherwise serious story, and make this movie enjoyment.
I’d recommend this movie to anyone who appreciates a good laugh, a good story, or a touching picture of what it means to be human.
“It’s not easy growing up, no matter what age you are…”