Emo cinema adds another quirky, wistful member to its ranks with Thumbsucker, whose young suburbanite hero fits the type of pharmaceutically enhanced searcher-seer previously established from American Beauty to Garden State. Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is 17 and still suckles his thumb, an intractable habit that marks him out for mockery at school and incurs the wrath of his macho dad, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), who interprets his sensitive kid’s every shortcoming as a personal affront. Justin’s “holistic orthodontist,” Dr. Perry Lyman, tries hypnotherapy, urging Justin to invoke his “power animal”—a deer in the forest, as it turns out—for help in casting out his organic pacifier. As played by Keanu Reeves in a nicely self-parodic turn, pensive stoner Lyman isn’t a quack; indeed, if Freud was onto anything in attributing oral fixation, and the catastrophic dentistry that goes with it, to bad parenting, then every orthodontist should cross-train as a shrink. Nor would Freud call a thumb a thumb if he could see how longingly Justin gazes at his mom, Audrey (Tilda Swinton).
School authorities take a more prosaic approach, diagnosing Justin’s listlessness and indirection not as adolescence but as ADHD. Hopped up on Ritalin, Justin becomes a cocaine-tongued speed reader, exuding debate team prowess and a certain lack of inhibition about lying. Justin’s parents join him at the displacement activity group table, whether they realize it or not: Mike projects his embitterment about his truncated college football career onto his family, while Audrey, a nurse who’s startled to find herself in early middle age, is obsessed with TV hunk Matt Schraam (Benjamin Bratt). Everybody has a thumb, be it prescription meds, celebrity, nostalgia, or heaps of pot—the movie looks away for a moment and Justin’s crush, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), transforms from earnest do-gooder to raccoon-eyed burnout, a mutation any high school vet will recognize with a shiver.
Enriched by Joaquín Baca-Asay’s richly hued, blurred-edges cinematography and the enveloping faux-gospel of the Polyphonic Spree, Thumbsucker isn’t as sour as the 1999 Walter Kirn novel on which it’s loosely based, and is less beholden to sitcom-episodic set pieces. Exiting a press screening a while back, however, I overheard an otherwise mild-mannered audience member growl, “Another fucking American suburban teen-angst film.” Snip off the expletive and you’ve got a perfectly fair nutshell of the endearing and well-acted Thumbsucker, and you can throw in much of whatever’s left of the Sundance-Amerindie project too (The Chumscrubber and Me and You and Everyone We Know
also premiered this year at Park City). The inevitably irritating prevalence of this limited subgenre is something of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: In a different filmmaking climate—less dependent on proven formulas, less lab tested and producer oriented (Thumbsucker has nine), less flushed with book-option fever—one wouldn’t necessarily expect an established short-film director, designer, and gallery artist like Mills to choose Donnie Darko Redux as his first feature any more than you’d anticipate Miranda July to make a movie lightly redolent of Todd Solondz. When Justin at last finds an escape hatch from tree-lined limbo, the optimistic viewer might read it as an allegory of the American Filmmaker’s dearest wish.