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“Thumbsucker” is a loving film about teens and parents and their dreams.   In Oregonian “new devos” we meet Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), an insecure debate-team member, fragile, bright, and troubled, who sucks his thumb.   It’s a filmic field day for Freudians, what with Justin arrested in the “oral stage” and its evocations of the unconscious and intimations of the Oedipal, which brings us to Justin’s parents, Audrey and Mike.  

Audrey’s incarnated by Tilda Swinton, great and fearless British muse of the avant-garde cinema, here playing as far against type as imaginable as an ordinary suburban American mom.   It works because her character’s meant to have had a high school artiness which years have obscured but not erased.   Though she’s made to look as plain as possible here, any image containing Swinton’s otherworldly visage is interesting per se.  

Mike’s (Vincent D'Onofrio) the manager of a Wal-Mart-type store.   A football star in high school, an accident derailed his dreams of going pro.   Though impatient re: Justin’s thumbsucking, D’Onofrio doesn’t play him as the stereotypical insensitive, overbearing dad but imparts to him a beefy soulfulness.   He’s simply got the jock’s utter inability to relate to angst.   It’s a credit to D’Onofrio and Pucci that we believe that the ex-jock and the skinny, cerebral teen are father and son, as we do that Mike’s efforts to understand Justin are made in good faith; his inability to do so a genuine source of pain.

Keanu Reeves pokes metatextual fun at his “Matrix” iconography as Perry Lyman, a philosophical orthodontist who not only ministers to the dental damage wrought by Justin’s habit but counsels him to give himself over to his subconscious, to find his “inner animal”.   (Justin’s turns out to be a fawn).   Vince Vaughn, cast against type as bespectacled, disheveled debate coach Mr. Geary, is spot on.  

The qualities that save this film from being another trite coming-of–age tale are distilled in a remarkable scene that manages the unique feat of grossing us out at the very same time that it makes peaceful our troubled hearts.   Suffice it to say that it involves Audrey and a TV star at the rehab clinic where she works as a nurse.  

I loved “Thumbsucker”.   It is a joyful film; its joy is earned in that it flows not from a phony escape from the pain and fear but rather from learning that they are a part of the journey that you’ve the strength to manage; and from a good-humored self-acceptance that on those occasions when you can’t manage, it’s not shameful to suck your thumb.   The film is a tremendous aural experience as well thanks to a transcendent score by self-described “choral symphonic pop band” Polyphonic Spree, which lifts it into the azure, and a sprinkling of wistful songs by the late Elliot Smith.   Based upon a Walter Kirn novel, it’s the feature directorial debut of Mike Mills and clearly was an important project for Swinton in that she co-produced.    

- Oct 10, 2005  

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