Sex, drugs and emotional retardation
So armed with that knowledge, and having been informed that the director was not a part of R.E.M., I set out to experience this movie, expecting a quirky independent film. I got exactly that once engulfed in the world of Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), a young man with parents who haven't grown up, a severely introverted personality and a thumbsucking habit that he just can't quit. He's also got a far-out dentist (Keanu Reeves) who hypnotizes him to break the aforementioned habit, only to set him on a course for psychiatric medication. But that's really just the setup.
Once "freed" by his pills, a new Justin is born, and faces down the previously unseen truths in his life, symbolically represented by his success as a part of the school debate team. The success has a definite price, paid by Justin and everyone around him, including Rebecca, the girl he carries a torch for, who follows a path that's parallel and opposite of Justin's.
Though the movie is grounded in nothing but reality, there's a sense of time-traveling, as Justin moves from child to adult and back again, with several stops in between. There may be a statement about the reality of life lived on drugs in the movie, but there are so many themes at work that to pull one out and label the film as a statement on such a theme, would be unnecessarily limiting to the film.
As directed by commercial and video veteran Mike Mills, this adaptation of the Walter Kirn book has many of the earmarks of the MTV visual generation, including fun graphics and montages, many scenes dependant on the music for their impact and video tricks like slow motion. Often it results in a look that's familiar, like Garden State or The Virgin Suicides. Fortunately, Mills complements a sense of visual creativity with an ability to leave the camera alone and let the actors do the work.
Those actors doing the work are well-cast, starting with Pucci, who's outstanding as a boy lost in his own skin. Young actors can often take a role like this and make it look like they are trying too hard, but Pucci makes his acting look effortless. That's despite portraying a character that's twisting in the wind, changing personalities from scene to scene, while maintaining a subtle consistency that sells the story.
Pucci is supported by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio as his biological, though not emotional parents, who both play roles that are funhouse mirror images of Justin. The parts of the "kids having kids" parents risked veering into satire territory, but Swinton and D'Onofrio rein them in and make them two quality parental roles, even if they aren't particularly good parents.
It may be a relatively small part for such a big name, but Reeves' pseudo-shaman is the kind of part that his fans have been hoping for since My Own Private Idaho, as it shows that he can play a part, instead of himself, even if the part may not be far removed from himself. It's the kind of part that every underrated actor needs to show what they can do, and one this film has in surplus, handing out low-key opportunities to Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughn as well. Their performances, in turn, lift the film, especially the impressive minor part of Justin's brother Joel (Chase Offerle), who delivers one of the truest lines in the entire film, one that puts a neat little bow on a film that otherwise defies such packaging.
The audio is presented in the rare Dolby Digital 5.0 format, delivering a surround-sound experience minus the low-frequency effects. The result is solid for a movie that doesn't feature bass in much any way. Music enhancement fills the surround speakers during montages, while the all-important dialogue sounds crisp and undistorted. To expect more from this simple film would be to court disappointment.
In the first featurette, seated in a screening room, Mills and author Walter Kirn share an in-depth discussion on video about the book Thumbsucker and how the adaptation worked, while comparing and contrasting their takes on the material. The two men get along well, and comment and question each other about a variety of subjects, creating a 41-minute faux commentary. Sure, there's a bit of apple polishing, but not too much.
There's also a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which includes interviews with the cast and crew and a ton of on-set footage, which provides more insight from those involved in the movie that haven't been heard from yet.
Pop the disc into your DVD=ROM drive and you can access Mills' blog, which was posted on the Thumbsucker Web site during the film's promotion. Well, at least, the files are there. I couldn't quite make it work.
The Bottom Line