Suck on this

Coming of age with an oral fixation

by

Of the many recent indie flicks inspired by the great counterculture films of the ’60s and ’70s — Garden State, Me and You and Everyone We Know, the films of Wes Anderson — none is more spot-on than director Mike Mills’ new coming-of-age comedy. From its stringy-haired hero to its lovely, hazy cinematography to its vague sense of social consciousness, it’s clear that Mills has watched The Graduate and Harold and Maude more times he can count. Even the sound track features the late Elliot Smith covering one of Cat Stevens’ signature tunes from Harold. While Thumbsucker may not be as profound or life-altering as the movies that influenced it, the film is an impressive breakthrough for the former music-video director Mills and his talented young lead, Lou Taylor Pucci.

Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, the movie will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been told to “apply yourself.” Alternately hilarious and melancholy, the film meanders through the senior-year existence of Justin Cobb (Pucci), a chronic underachiever still searching for something to replace his mother’s teat, a fact pointed out to him by his overly concerned new-age dentist (Keanu Reeves). Justin’s always trying to satisfy his oral fixation, whether he’s in the school bathroom or at home in front of the TV. Though his parents are oddly laid-back — they barge into his room, plop down on his bed and ask to be called by their first names — his failed-athlete father Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) won’t tolerate a thumbsucker, while his doting, neurotic mom Audrey (Tilda Swinton) nurtures him perhaps a little too much. In turn, Justin submits to both hypnosis and Ritalin, which renders him a pro on his school’s debate team, but leaves him even more unsure of who he is.

Both the movie and the book chronicle Justin’s epic quest to kick boyhood habits, but Mills’ adaptation loses most of the book’s best bits: Mike’s fly-fishing obsession, the family’s conversion to Mormonism, an arsonist who practices his trade at a gas station. What remains is the simple tale of a boy trying to shake the loving-but-smothering influence of his parents, and even on these modest terms, the movie still falls a little short thematically. But Thumbsucker is directed in a way that compels you to overlook the faults. Mills has an eye for detail that’s intoxicating, whether he’s focusing on the drab fluorescent lights and empty auditoriums of suburbia or contrasting them with the beauty of the woods that surround Justin’s split-level home.

Better still, just about every performance is a revelation, from the leads through the flamboyant, star-studded supporting cast. Normally, big cameos draw attention away from the lead actor, but not here. Pucci’s Justin is a fascinating, initially inarticulate blank slate, and he manages to convey all the fear and awkwardness of being 17, even when the script requires him to snap into an overly confident, Ritalin-fueled mind-set. Mills is in tune with Pucci at every turn, allowing the actor room to mumble and stammer just as an average teen would. If Thumbsucker is any indication, they both have long, rewarding film careers ahead of them.

 

At the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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