Thumbsucker

Sundance Film Festival 2005(World Premiere)–Though centering on a 17-year-old adolescent, who still sucks his thumbs (hence the title), Thumbsucker is much more than a poignant, well-executed coming-of-age tale. Based on Walter Kirn's well-received novel, Mike Mills' striking feature directorial debut offers a lovely, up-to-the moment portrait of a two generational family, headed by Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton, that avoids cynicism and anger, instead depicting in an admirably even manner the existential fears and emotional doubts of both parents and children.

Along with the similarly-themed but otherwise completely different Pretty Persuasion, which focuses on a 16-year-old girl, Thumbuscker is clearly one of the highlights of this year's Sundance Dramatic Competition (which consists of 16 entries). Theatrical prospects are excellent for a humanistic, nonjudgmental serio-comedy that boasts a uniformly excellent ensemble, with a bravura performance from Lou Pucci in the demanding leading role.

I don't want to simplify or trivialize the film's text or subtext by suggesting that Thumbsucker deals with the sorrows and pains of growing up, no matter what age you are. But it's important to stress that Thumbsucker differs from most coming-of-age sagas by refusing to embrace the point of view of its young characters, at the expense of the parents. This in itself is a novelty and deviation from a long-cherished tradition in American cinema, begun exactly 50 years with James Dean's star vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause.

It's hard to recall the last time I saw a film, let alone by a novice filmmaker, that portrays parents not as negative figures or caricatures but as full-fledged human beings, who in many respects are just as doubtful about their own identities and desires as their children. Parents in American film, indie and Hollywood, are often peripheral, secondary figures. While understandably Thumbuscker revolves around Justin Cobb (Pucci), its high-school hero, the movie doesn't neglect or relegates his parents to the periphery.

Some of this novelty is a function of the acting. It's a pleasure to observe three actors, D'Onofrio, Swinton, and Vince Vaughn (as the school's debate coach), who usually play character parts, assume center-stage in a narrative that aims higher than most youth-driven sagas. Add to this stellar group two actors that are more mainstream Hollywood, Keanu Reeves and Benjamin Bratt, and you have a terrific cast, a major asset that should help the film get theatrical distribution.

Realizing that his bad habit of thumbsucking, for which his father ridicules him, disrupts his love life and family life, Justin Cobb wants to stop doing it. But how does he accomplish that While well-meaning, the strategy of his contemptuous father is of no help, and neither is that of his more understanding and forgiving mother (“give him a chance, it's a matter of time”).

The “solution” comes from an unexpected source, Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), the family's orthodontist, who suggests hypnosis therapy and in no time becomes Justin's guru, sharing with him his philosophy of life (which would continue to change throughout the story).

What seems to be a quick and functional manner to deal with the problem, suggesting that Justin is on the right track to live a normal adolescent life, turns out to be more complicated and encompassing. What if thumbsucking is only a symptom of a deep-seated fear that he and his father are simply not good enough for their bright, ambitious mother–What if the childish habit is the only way to sooth his fear and anxiety.

In short order, Justin is diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficiency) and is prescribed the miracle medication of Ritalin, which becomes a substitute for his thumb. All goes well and Justin becomes one of the best members of the debate team of his school. He even pulls enough courage to approach the girl he's been attracted to, Rebecca, but never even dared look at her straight in the eye.

It's to the credit of Mills, as writer and director, that he continues to crosscut Justin's joys and sorrows of growing up and his adventures and misadventures with intriguing parallel episodes in his parents' lives.

The Cobbs represent a modern family, one in which the parents insist to be called by their children by their first names, Mike and Audrey. While both Mike and Audrey seem to be self-assured, in a subtle way, Thumbsucker depicts a father who is shadowed by the sad twists of his youth. Like most males, Mike refuses to talk about it, but under pressure from his son and charges that he never explains anything, it turns out that Mike's college football career was aborted by a knee injury.

What's wonderful and new about Thumbsucker is that its shows parents who, just as their son, are themselves teenagers. They are not childish or even child-like, as parents often are in American youth films. And it avoids the movie cliche of role reversal, of children that are more mature than their old folks. No, what the film does effortlessly is to show that life is a continuous struggle with issues of ego and identity, career and desire, that there are no easy magical (or medical) solutions to one's problems, no matter how old you are.

In his 40s, Mike goes through mid-life crisis without him–or the film–labeling it as such. He hides his fears and disappointments with tough behavior, but only on the surface. D'Onofrio's unusually quiet and multi-nuanced performance conveys a husband who knows that his wife is drifting away, a father who has never felt close to his sons, a man who has never really given an account to himself of his past–did he really want to be a jock

Similarly, Audrey wonders how she could possibly be grown up with a son going to college. She's struggling, just like hubby Mike and son Justin, to find out who she is and to accept her own shortcomings. As a mother and wife, Audrey knows that she doesn't have all the answers to Justin's–and to her own–troubles, and that she's too self-absorbed with her own doubts to be help Justin. To “hide” from her own painful realities, she becomes obsessed with a TV heartthrob, Matt Schraam (a delectable Benjamin Bratt), whose TV character, a cop, seems to have all the neat answers.

In a nice twist of plot, Audrey is transferred to a rehab clinic for the celebs, where one of her patients is Schraam, a drug addict whose life is messier than hers or any member of her family. Feeling neglected and betrayed, both Mike and Justin are upset by the transfer, and Justin decides to pay a visit to his mom's new locale, a hilarious scene that involves meeting the real-life Schraam and getting a “healthy advice” from him.

Since all the characters are adolescent in one way or another, the only rational figure is the Cobb's youngest son, Joel (Chase Offerle). At first oblivious to his family's peculiar dynamics, Joel gets more and more involved to the point where he consciously becomes the most mature member. Embarrassed by Justin's troubles, Joel emerges as the only strong-minded and clear-headed character that lacks doubts. In the process, he also provides comic relief in a film that balances marvelously the comic with the more serio elements.

I have not read the novel upon which the screenplay is based, but the director claims that he had to eliminate many subplots and to construct composite characters due to the riches of the source material. Not to worry: As is, Thumbsucker is rich in ideas, stories, and images. And it's a testament to Mills' talents that each character embarks on a self-discovery journey and continues to evolve up to the very end.

Take, for example, Mr. Geary (Vaughn), Justin's debate coach. Initially, Geary comes across as a confident man, willing and able to help Justin and the rest of the debate team, which is dominated by girl (three to one). However, during the team's travels, the precociously bright members force Geary to reveal himself as alternately dominating and cripplingly insecure. There is a splendid vignette, set late a night in a hotel, in which the kids ask Geary to but them liquor, and the way he handles their request/demand is indicative of his own conflicted personality. Striving to act as a peer to Justin, Geary eventually finds that he can no longer control him, when Justin reaps great success.

Space doesn't permit to dwell on the evolution of all the characters, whose odysseys are both poignant and funny. Justin's love interest, Rebecca (Kelli Garner) turns out to be another “pretender,” who masks her insecurities about sex and relationships behind a cool demeanor. Like all the others, Rebecca seems adult beyond her years, but she too grapples with the problem of how to face her fears.

Heartfelt and humanistic in the best sense of the term, “Thumbsucker” is an unusually open-ended and nonjudgmental film that offers a funny, honest look at the struggles of flawed people, both those in youth, who are expected to be confused, and those in middle age, who are not, at least from society's rigid and moralistic perspective.

Technically, Thumbsucker looks better than most first features, with smooth and polished production values. The film was shot in Oregon over a short period of time, but benefits from a lengthy rehearsal period, in which the cast was encouraged to improvise. The end result is a film in which every frame is suffused with humanity and emotional truth.

It may sound absurd, but Thumbsucker is a splendid coming-of age film for adults as well as children.