Thumbsucker (2005)

Directed by Mike Mills


Thumbsucker is Mike Mills’ feature film debut.  Like his subsequent films (Beginners and 20th Century Women), the story deals with the relationship between son and parent.  Thumbsucker sets up the dynamic that is further explored in those later films.  The common theme seems to be that the son is distant from the father and strangely close to the mother.  That closeness, however, is strangely unhealthy.

Our protagonist here is Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), a seventeen year old who still sucks his thumb, much to his former athlete father’s chagrin.  Justin’s father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) makes him call him by his first name, and it’s hard to imaging that they’re really grown up with each other.  While Justin is extremely close with his mother, he and his father can hardly hold a conversation.  This same type of strained relationship exists in Beginners and between the young boy in 20th Century Women and the only male figure in his life.

Mike is a former football player whose career was derailed by a knee injury, and he’s never forgotten about it.  Justin is nothing like the athlete Mike might’ve hoped him to be, but he’s also not really anything else.  Justin participates in debate but not actively.  He lusts after a friend, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), but not successfully.  He also doesn’t seem to have many friends.

Justin’s dentist, Perry (Keanu Reeves) decides to hypnotize him one day to help stop his thumb sucking habit.  The trick works, at least in preventing Justin from sucking his thumb, but it hasn’t helped alleviate the stress which has compelled him to suck his thumb for so long.  Acting out, Justin gets himself arrested, and he is soon prescribed Ritalin to help with his perceived ADHD.

The drug works, and soon Justin is the star pupil of the debate team.  He is finally good at something, and he feels fulfilled by winning.  Even this, though, soon burns out, and he throws the drugs away and quits the team, turning now to pot and his old friend Rebecca.

The drug has a much different effect on the boy, but it serves the same purpose, filling some kind of void.  He begins a strange relationship with Rebecca who insists on blindfolding him before they fool around.  When Justin asks why this is the game they have to play, she confesses that he was just her experiment, someone she could be intimate with but who could never hurt her.

Justin returns to square one, back to being unmedicated and unfulfilled.  He is no closer to his father or his mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), who has been off obsessing over Matt Schramm (Benjamin Pratt), a famous tv star who just so happens to be in rehab at the clinic to which Audrey is transferred.

Just as Justin searches for meaning through a variety of drugs and activities, his father searches for it through physical competition and his mother through her infatuation with this tv star.  Along the way he visits his sort of guru, the dentist Perry.

Perry is incredibly zen.  At first he talks about spirit animals and hypnotizes Justin, but later he has chopped off much of his long hair and repeats the phrase, “do, there is no try.”  Finally, near the end of the film after Justin has gone through his own sense of wandering, Perry returns to tell Justin that there are no answers.

Eventually Justin is accepted at NYU, and he leaves for college.  The end.

Thumbsucker is a comedy, but it’s also rather heartbreaking.  No one has the answers in life, and everyone is unfulfilled, but only some people suck their thumb.  Everyone else does it figuratively.

Near the end of the film, when Justin tells his father that he’s leaving early for school, his father says, “I was just getting used to you,” in a somber tone he hasn’t had through much of the film.  Earlier, when his father discovered that his mother may have been having an affair, Justin commiserated with his father’s feeling of lack, saying, “the only way someone like me could get her attention is by being her kid.”

I found these lines incredibly succinct and terribly sad.  For a story of whimsy, this is awfully touching.  Everyone feels very distant from each other because no one is quite sure what they’re looking for.  So Just as Mike has felt insignificant since the end of his playing days and Audrey’s felt invisible as their marriage has gone on, Justin suffers from his own low self-esteem.  It’s a low sense of self that he seems to attribute to his parents, never blaming them but always identifying them as part of the problem.  It’s the focus of his college essay, about their own mental illness, which gets him accepted at NYU despite his poor grades.

It’s unclear how much Justin believes this, that his parents are to blame for his problems, but it’s an easy way out of the situation.  It’s an answer, even if it’s not the right one.  In the end, however, his mom says, “I know you Justin, I’ve been watching you your whole life.”

“You have?”

He’s no longer invisible, and he still sucks his thumb, but it’s okay.  It was never about the thumbsucking, just the underlying struggle that manifested itself in such an action.  When the film ends, Justin is back to sucking his thumb, but he’s okay with it.  It’s okay to cope.

There is a heavy melancholy to this film, much like in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude.  The sullen kid at the heart of the story is searching for answers, and by the end he finds some peace.  Maybe it’s just the shared use of Cat Stevens’ Trouble which made them feel alike.  They’re both whimsical but profoundly sad.  They’re about people who may believe that happiness passed them by and younger people who think it will soon pass them by.

In Thumbsucker, this melancholy is shared by everyone, even someone like Rebecca.  Her remark that Justin is an experiment is a brief example of how she too is trying to figure something out.  Sometimes we hurt others when we’re searching for that thing within ourselves that makes it okay to be alone.  Or maybe not.  The point seems to be that when we’re born we’re all gently nudged down a slide in some direction.  It doesn’t matter what that direction is because where we want to return to is the top of the slide.  We’ve all been pushed equally far away, yet that distance manifests itself in different ways.

The characters in Thumbsucker long for the past, but since such a return to the past is impossible, they will try anything to mimic that nostalgic feeling.  Sucking one’s thumb is a clear example of the feeling of being a child, when everything was taken care of for you.  Justin might as well long for the womb.

A conversation between Justin and Perry briefly touches on this idea that we’re shaped by so many factors we couldn’t possibly remember.  Our subconscious dictates so much of our lives.  It’s quite sad, in many ways, because we might be self-sabotaging or unable to cope with life’s challenges and we don’t know why.  Why can’t this be okay?

The movie offers some hope that it all will be okay, but it doesn’t offer an answer, because there isn’t one.  Maybe it’s just time or maybe we just get tired of feeling the same way for too long.  Maybe it’s just growing up, no matter how old we are.  All I do know is that Mills suggests that this struggle is universal but conquerable.

Up Next: Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Me and Orson Welles (2008)

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