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Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is a seventeen-year-old virgin, a highly
sensitive young man painfully aware of not fitting in. In a world where bland appearances
are everything, Justin seems somewhat at a loss to even know how to rebel and he
perambulates among the sleepwalkers of his suburban
Director Mike Mills renders such a true-to-life vision of early twenty-first century suburbia as beige hell that the camera work might be mistaken for simple home movies, and the generally strong acting among the cast might easily be misinterpreted as a bunch of really cool, really big-name actors just showing up and being themselves in front of that camera. Justins father, Mike (Vincent DOnofrio), scarcely seems mature enough to have a nearly grown son. DOnofrios character lapses into muted silences, whenever asked to give of himself, explain himself, or otherwise indicate he ever moved beyond being seventeen himself.
Justins mom Audrey (Tilda Swinton) struggles, like a little cloud encountering buffeting wind gusts in the sky, with her own adulthood identity. Swintons character in her woman-child lack of surface complication is fascinating to watch as she finds her way to a new career as a nurse in a residential treatment program for celebrity addicts. Mike and Audrey insist that Justin call them by their first names, lest Mom and Dad constrict or otherwise force them to feel older than they are comfortable with.
Director of photography Joaquin Baca-Assay must be singled out for his remarkable cinematography. The carefully framed shots of subdivided tract-housing, the consistent color range of muted pastels, the layer upon layer of beige and blond fences and tracts and visual collages add up to a mind-numbingly bland and highly misleading vision of ubiquitous normalcy, underlining the claustrophobic (but illusory) sense of safety that suburbia is designed to inspire. Perhaps the most important character in Thumbsucker is contemporary suburbia, and Baca-Assay renders Justins town into a real estate agents drive-by audio tour as seen by Joel Sternfeld, a kind of American Prospects talking book.
The bland horror motif is strengthened structurally. For example, Justins debate team coach. Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), is a near visual double of DOnofrio. The vagueness of everyones speech is parodied by New Age seeker-warrior, Justins orthodontist, Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), to whom Justin turns when no one else seems capable of mentoring him. Ironically, as Lyman succeeds in his own quest to find himself and become normal, exactly that happens. Reeves primary purpose seems to be to give the audience permission to see, and laugh at, the joke of it all.
Thumbsucker is something of a sleeping giant of a film. Its greatly understated tone (and at time stupefying effects of witnessing endless surface blandness) allows Mills to point out some rather hefty elephants squatting in the middle of Americans living rooms today. In a society where the easy answer to everything is a pill, preferably Ritalin, Prozac, or the latest state-of-the-art cure-all, where specious diagnoses permit everyone to become the victim of their faulty brain chemistry, where political debate and examining social issues have become merely talking points for advancing oneself in the popularity contest of suburban life, this film suggests, ever so blithely and blandly that, well, maybe there is something terribly wrong in our nation where everyone ends up needing to be addicted to something.
- Les Wright