Mike Mills is a photographer, music video director, documentary maker and, every once in a while, he also makes a film. There have been three so far (a fourth is on the way) the latest of which is 2016’s 20th Century Women. 2010’s Beginners is the best known having won veteran actor Christopher Plummer an Oscar. Mills’ debut feature Thumbsucker was released in 2005. The story is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Kim though the film is also semi improvised. Mills uses a directorial style we could call relaxed. Sometimes the camera seems to drift from one person to the other which when you’re used to sharp talking fast cuts comes as a surprise. This emphasises the uncertainty felt by the family at the heart of the film and gives matters a dreamy quality. The title refers to the fact that seventeen- year- old Justin Cobb still sucks his thumb despite his parents’ attempt to pull him out of the habit. At first Justin appears to be the typical angsty movie kid but this is not a coming of age movie in that the story suggests we never come of age. We spend our lives seeking to do so, looking for answers but as one character suggests  “we’re all scared little animals”.

The film is set (and was filmed) in Oregon. When we first meet Justin he’s pining for a cool girl called Rebecca and has even started shadowing her interests in an attempt to get to know her better so becomes well versed in ecological issues and also joins the school’s debate team.  Attempts by his unconventional orthodontist Perry Lymon to use hypnosis to stop his thumb sucking habit sends the poor kid off the rails so he’s prescribed Ritalin which then turns him into an overachieving member of the debating team who gradually winds his tutor Mr Geary up and over- reaches himself becoming sickeningly confident. He belittles his opponents and eventually Geary says he’s become “a monster”. 

Adding to his woes, Justin suspects his mother Audrey is having an affair with a famous tv actor Matt Schramm the star of a police show called `The Line` (catchphrase “sometimes you have to cross it”) who is de toxifying at the clinic where she starts working. She’d already entered a competition to meet him which she applies herself to with vigour alarming Justin even though she dismisses it as “a bit of fun that’s all”. Now he’s off the team, Justin re-engages with Rebecca whose previously clean existence has been somewhat overturned by a reliance on pot and weed. She starts to entice him but this turns out to be an experiment she is conducting rather than the start of true relationship. Likewise, Audrey’s seeming infatuation with Matt is misinterpreted by her son and is really part of an re-invigorated work ethic as she tackles a new job.

This story explores that fragile point where children grow up and their parents hanker after their own childhood because they have not necessarily found the contentment they seek. It also explores how children see their parents- Justin has a telling line to the effect that the only way someone like his mother would speak to him is by him being her child. Meanwhile Audrey and husband Mike have settled into a warm routine that she in particular seems to find limiting. Mike himself comes to the same conclusion as Justin where Matt Schramm is concerned but seems unable to do anything about it. When Justin wins a debate cup and Audrey gets her new job you can see Mike looks bewildered – is he happy at their achievements or does it threaten to leave him behind? Whether homespun philosophical solutions or Ritalin (“it’s basically speed”) people try to medicate themselves or think differently in pursuit of something elusive. Justin’s younger brother is the most normal of the family- in a memorable speech Joel articulates his own frustrations that he has to “step up” because Justin has so many issues.

You might imagine this is a movie with a lot of shouting and door slamming but quite the opposite. The air is rarefied and the tensions simmer yet the love between the family members still shows whatever is happening. Some may find this pace too glacial but for those who appreciate the dynamics of an evolving family as well as the skills of subtle actors at their best there is so much to engage with. The improvisational style means that the Cobb family feels like a real one with an authenticity brought to the roles by a strong cast. Lou Pucci takes Justin’s journey at a point when the actor was the same age as the character and his instinctive performance always hits the spot. Tilda Swinton is one of those actors who can completely lose herself in a role and you can really believe that she’s this luminous, clever but slightly bored American housewife. Yet for me the most striking performance is from Vincent D’Onofrio. A big bear of man compared to the waif like floppy haired appearance of both his wife and son, Mike seems unable to move at the same speed as his family and equally unable to articulate how he feels. In one scene when Justin asks for advice Mike is simply unable to provide and he leaves the room.

Keanu Reeves gives a particularly subtle performance as each time we meet Perry his demeanour and outlook have altered and by the end you realise he has no more answers than anyone else. Chase Oferele plays Joel and holds his own amongst his more experienced cast mates while Benjamin Bratt’s brief scenes as Matt suggest a character more complex than his tv role. Vince Vaughan is the debate team teacher Mr Geary who tries to keep order outside as well as inside the debates and isn’t quite able to do the latter providing some of the film’s light humour. You can see he wants to keep well in with the kids but also not overstep his mark as a teacher. Kelli Garner’s somewhat enigmatic Rebecca is excellent balancing a philosophical leaning with the silliness of a teenager.

The film does have a happy ending as Justin gets a place at a New York University which will enable him to “move away and shine” as the Polyphonic Spree’s exuberant song at the end has it and live his own life. There is a marvellous scene where Audrey seems genuinely happy when Justin tells her he is leaving though she is not surprised; “I’ve been watching you your whole life,” she tells him which surprises Justin. Her supportiveness only crumbles when he’s left the room. Mike’s reaction is equally liable to leave a lump in the throat as he seems taken aback when Justin tells him as if he never expected this natural thing to happen. “I was just getting used to you,” he says. These two simple moments are the loveliest things I’ve ever seen in a film about families.

Mike Mills’ direction takes us into this world with skill, allowing the talented cast to do their stuff while the pace remains medium even during a bicycle race. He often seems to have characters physically distanced from each other (which looks normal in 2021!) and occasional dream flourishes are rendered without over playing weirdness. A slightly off kilter aesthetic was carried over into the film’s promotional posters which Mike Mills designed.

The soundtrack is provided partly by the massed ranks of The Polyphonic Spree, a band that included dozens of robed singers and creates a unique musical signature that really suits the palette and tempo of the film. Other music comes from what were Elliot Smith’s last recorded songs. He’d originally been contracted to score the whole film but died before completion.

Thumbsucker was my favourite film of 2005 and watching it again for this review it remains one of my favourite films of all. I appreciate some people may find it slow and say `nothing much happens` but for those who appreciate it everything happens. Sixteen years ago I probably still saw the film from Justin’s point of view more than his parents but now, older and maybe wiser (or maybe not) I can identify more with the parents. This is a rich, thoughtful and extremely well made film and if you like that sort of thing and haven’t seen it I would recommend it.

 Below is a feature from the American magazine `Paper`....

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