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I was a little disappointed when I found out that the Mike Mills that directed Thumbsucker was not the same one that plays the bass and sometimes sings for R.E.M. Michael Stipe's all about Independent film, so why not Mills? I guess he's too busy being the most talented member of that band to make indie flicks about teen angst. Maybe David Lowery of Cracker Van Beethoven can make those kind of movies, because, as we all know, what the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head.
So I saw Thumbsucker a few weeks removed from The Squid and The Whale, which it's bound to draw comparisons with, if nothing else, for the presence of a scrawny floppy-haired teenaged lead who calls his parents by their first names. It's not quite as good as Squid, but it's not bad either.
Thumbsucker is about a kid named Justin. He's 17, he's in high school, he crushes on a girl in his debate class, and as you might gather from the film's title, he still sucks his thumb. Daddy disapproves, but it's Justin's only crutch. After being hypnotized by his orthodontist (played by Keanu Reeves, who I'm not buying as someone who finished med school,) Justin replaces this crutch with others. The school puts him on Ritalin, which allows him to focus enough to take the lead of the debate team. He winds up in an odd relationship with Rebecca, who likes to get high and conduct sex experiments on Justin. Eventually Justin gets tired of trying to find his identity when he knows what his real one is, and gives in to his desires.
Any film in this genre can easily paint itself into a corner, but Thumbsucker does its best to avoid that habit. Much like Squid and the Whale and Igby Goes Down, it relies on a good script and well-developed characters. There are a few flaws, such as the gag-inducing (and I don't mean due to a thumb being stuck down a throat) final shot of Justin running in slow motion over a swelling soundtrack to visualize his new found liberation, but for a first feature, it's pretty well-polished.
Casting turned out to be the film's strongest point, with a collection of capable performers often playing against type. Vince Vaughn subtled it down to play Justin's debate coach, while Keanu Reeves played off his strengths as Justin's unorthodox orthodontist. Justin's parents, played by Vincent "Don't call me Gomer" D'Onofrio and Tilda "star of every movie in '05" Swinton, have an interesting chemistry together. And finally, Benjamin Bratt pops up in an effective cameo as an epiphany-inducing junkie actor.
In the flaws department, I have to take a moment to bitch about the soundtrack. The music was provided by Elliot Smith and The Polyphonic Spree, a man who stabbed himself in the heart and a band that makes me want to do the same. Every note of score just screams out "artsy indie!", which I'm sure was the intent when they hired a tragically hip dead guy and a strange hippie cult to do the music. It also seems to be shoved in the front way too often when it doesn't really fit at all, rather than provide a nice backdrop for the actors to do their stuff before.
Still, Thumbsucker comes recommended. It's not the best film of the year, and it's not even the best film of its genre this year. But if you're like me and still get a kick out of the angsty teen coming-of-age movie despite being far removed from the subject matter, then there are worse ways you could spend an hour and a half.
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