Written & Directed by Mike Mills
Mike Mills has been a director that has intrigued me since my college days. I don’t know how to describe his particular aesthetic, and it has undoubtedly changed from his first feature to the present. With his newest film, C’mon C’mon, being released this weekend, I thought I should revisit that debut film and see how it holds up sixteen years later. I have enjoyed all of his output (Beginners, 21st Century Women) and think those earlier music videos and short films haven’t aged with the times very well. Mills certainly isn’t offensive, but he is very twee in how he tells his stories.
Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a high school junior living in suburban Oregon. He’s got a chronic habit of thumbsucking, which his father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), is constantly trying to dissuade him from. His mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), has become increasingly obsessed with television actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt) as a way to escape the drudgery and disappointments of her life. Unfortunately, life outside the home isn’t better for Justin as he becomes infatuated with fellow debate club member Rebecca (Kelli Garner). He’s pressured by his debate coach, Mr. Geary (Vincent Vaughn), and feels an increasing sense of anxiety, leading to more thumbsucking. A turning point occurs when his esoteric laid back orthodontist Perry (Keanu Reeves) hypnotizes Justin to find his thumb repellent.
Thumbsucker is a very quickly cut and paced movie with a lot of things happening. You can clearly see this was made by someone influenced by their time working music videos because we don’t ever really linger on a moment for too long. This editing and pacing style lead to me not feeling any strong emotional connection to any characters. Beyond Justin, we don’t get much time with anyone, with Audrey being the supporting character with the most time on screen. There are undoubtedly amusing bits, especially with Mr. Geary and everything going on with the debate club. The problems at home are crucial to understanding Justin and his anxiety, and by the end, I got why he was the way he was; I just didn’t care because the information was delivered in a way that didn’t connect with me emotionally.
There is something beneath all of this that is a great story with themes well worth exploring. Unfortunately, for Mills’ first feature, it’s underwhelming. I get the sense he was trying to adapt every little bit from the source novel without understanding how it wasn’t creating a cohesive story. There are so many moments that further a side character a little more before they disappear for a while, and I kept trying to understand why they were there. At the end of the picture, Justin comments to his dad that his mom would ignore him if he weren’t her son. I was confused by that remark. I didn’t see where he would get that sentiment from, but that’s mostly because we didn’t get enough scenes with her that gave a strong sense of her relationship with Justin. Both parents seem to be “progressive” in that they regard their children as young adults and are open with them. But I don’t know why Justin would think that at all based on what interactions we saw.
The issues of Justin’s potential ADHD and anxiety from worrying about life are well worth exploring. Unfortunately, the movie wraps it up in the most shallow & pat way possible. I couldn’t help but start to compare this movie to two female-led pictures working in the same ideas: Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. In Lady Bird, she, like Justin, aspires to go to college in New York. Whereas in Lady Bird, she leaves her home and her relationship with her mom in a weird unknown space, positive but still tense, Thumbsucker just sort of stops and gives a vague sense that everything will turn out okay for Justin without any further explanation. I also think Eighth Grade does a better job of portraying and talking about anxiety. In that film, I ultimately bought Kayla’s internal conflicts and worries as totally real. That movie has an aesthetic, but it doesn’t get in the way of genuine emotions. In Thumbsucker, the specifics of what is going on with Justin are so glossed over and not fully shown on screen that I never understood what was going on with him besides typical teenage angst.
I think Mills has improved by leaps and bounds with his subsequent films. He has wisely not rushed his filmmaking with a five-year gap between this and Beginners, six years from there to 21st Century Women, and now five years since then to C’mon C’mon. Allowing himself to ruminate on his movies has made them better. He’s adopted more interesting aesthetics that tie into the themes and characters of his films. There’s still a focus on male protagonists, but I find them far more interesting and complex than anything I saw in Thumbsucker. The not-quite-success of Thumbsucker comes down to the difficulty in adaptation; how to bring a book to the screen, you have to carve away the specifics and get down to the core themes.