Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Insecure, alienated 17-year-old Justin (Lou Pucci) tries to give up sucking his thumb, but discovers that the various solutions on offer (hypnosis, Ritalin, pot) lead only to other problems. Not that anyone else is exactly problem-free. His father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) has been obsessed with failure ever since his expected career as a pro footballer was cut short by a teenage injury. His mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton), uncertain of her role as mother and wife, dreams of escaping with handsome TV soap star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), even if he turns out to be made of the same blood and shit as everyone else. Justin's debating coach Mr Geary (Vince Vaughn) cannot work out whether he wants to be his pupils' teacher, or their peer, and his love interest Rebecca (Kelli Garner) is more anxious about sex than she makes out. Even his decidedly unorthodox orthodontist Perry (Keanu Reeves) is on a strange journey of self-discovery.

Like many a more conventional coming-of-age movie, Thumbsucker traces the rites of passage undergone by an awkward teenager. Yet, as Justin tries to let go of his thumb and find his feet, Mike Mills' feature debut turns the tropes of the genre on their head, portraying both its teen and adult characters as equally clueless and equally infantilised. Here, adolescence is a pandemic condition, a metaphor for the endless human struggle to become comfortable in one's own skin, blemishes and all. The film suggests that it is better to understand and accept the condition as normal than to try to eradicate it with supposed miracle cures, or superficial lifestyle changes.

All this gives Thumbsucker a quietly subversive edge. For what Mills unravels is the very fabric of the American Dream, where the pursuit of happiness is tied in with the constant need to be a winner and to measure oneself by ideals of behavior and appearance that are, in fact, unattainable, except in television's chimerical "picture land". His characters are unable to countenance their own inherent flaws, instead seeking refuge in escapist therapy, overmedication, narcotics, fads, fantasy, or other forms of self-delusion, when all along the flaws themselves are utterly harmless and entirely human.

The setting may be small-town, but this is a vision in microcosm of a whole nation that has been driven inevitably towards anxiety and unease by self-imposed pressures and impossible aspirations. It is a film not about the larger-than-life heroes typically projected by American movies, sports and television, but about the pernicious effect that such icons have on the American psyche.

At the same time, Thumbsucker is the portrait of an "ordinary" family under attrition, with note-perfect performances and a keenly observed script (adapted by Mills from Walter Kirn's novel). Relative newcomer Pucci makes Justin and his various incarnations seem completely natural. Swinton and D'Onofrio are as finely nuanced as ever in their roles as confused parents and even Reeves manages to show range as the dentist with the absurdly holistic approach in what are the film's funniest scenes.

Perhaps the only false note is struck by the triumphant (and somewhat cliched) final image of a newly liberated Justin running for joy through the streets of New York, although even this takes on a darker resonance when you think back to the lies that he put in his application in order to get there. In this tale, where everyone is a loser, it is difficult to believe anyone who seems like a winner. Either that, or you can always wonder what fate lies in store for Justin as he races, oblivious, through some of the most notoriously dangerous traffic in the world.

Thumbs up.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2005
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Teenager from the 'burbs attempts to quit suckin'.
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Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Mike Mills

Writer: Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kim

Starring: Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner, Chase Offerle, Ted Beckman, Arvin V. Entena, Tyler Gannon, Allen go, Dakota Goldhor, Walter Kirn, Kit Koenig, Sarah Lucht, Eric Normington, Nancy O'Dell

Year: 2005

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US

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