"With a project like this—that you have to spend so much time on, and that you only get a few chances in your life to create—this doesn't seem like the time or place to be satirical or cynical," director Mike Mills told me during his recent visit to Portland. "Neil Young—especially his album Harvest—was a huge influence on Thumbsucker, especially [in] his willingness to be totally honest and vulnerable. We strove to make that the core of all the performances of the film." Indeed, vulnerability and private insecurities are at the heart of Mills' debut, the touching and funny Thumbsucker, which was shot in the suburbs of SW Portland.
Lou Taylor Pucci plays Justin Cobb, a 17-year-old whose self-esteem and social development is stunted by the fact that he steals away into bathroom stalls and shuts himself in his bedroom to nurse his thumb. His new-age orthodontist, brilliantly played by Keanu Reeves (man, I never thought I'd type those five words), tries hypnosis and positive visualization to help Justin kick his habit, but to no avail.
At home, the Cobb family is on shaky legs: Vincent D'Onofrio makes an excellent turn as Justin's father, a football player who never made the big leagues and is disgusted by his son's thumbsucking, while his mom (Tilda Swinton) occupies herself trying to win a dream date with a cheesy TV star (Benjamin Bratt). The family decides to put Justin on Ritalin, and he transforms almost overnight from someone who can barely put a sentence together to the egomaniacal, self-possessed star of the school debate team.
Thumbsucker works so well because each character—from Justin to D'Onofrio's remote, macho father—is treated as a complex, real person, rather than a stock character courtesy of central casting. In one excellent scene, Justin briefly meets Bratt's goofy TV star; their brief and hilarious conversation is balanced with gross-out humor and a tenderness that stands in sharp relief to mainstream Hollywood releases. It's a scene that echoes those around it, but also sums up Thumbsucker as a whole—a tender and funny film that will nestle itself in your consciousness long after the credits have rolled.