eptember 16, 2005 A Teenager With an Embarrassing Habit Finds Transformation Through Ritalin By A. O. SCOTT Many of Justin Cobb's problems are of the kind you would expect to find bedeviling the teenage hero of a coming-of-age movie, especially one like "Thumbsucker," which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Justin, played by a slight, hollow-cheeked young actor named Lou Pucci, lives in a nondescript suburban house (in Beaverwood, Ore.), with his eccentric, wistful mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), his distant, disapproving dad, Jack (Vincent D'Onofrio), and a younger brother (Chase Offerle) who shows up from time to time to give Justin strange looks. Justin must also contend with the tedium of school and the torment of adolescent lust, whose object is an idealistic classmate named Rebecca (Kelli Garner).
The trait that distinguishes Justin from his numerous literary and cinematic peers is the one that gives this smart, quiet film, adapted from Walter Kirn's novel, its name. Justin's great shame - and also his great comfort - is that at age 16, he still sucks his thumb. This baffles his mother, enrages his father and provokes a benevolent intervention from Perry Lyman, a visionary orthodontist played with low-key wit by Keanu Reeves.
When Justin trades in his thumb habit for a Ritalin prescription, he also replaces Perry with a new surrogate father, his high school debate coach (Vince Vaughn). The drug unleashes a maniacal eloquence, which turns Justin from a timid, nebbishy kid into a forensic powerhouse and also, as those around him come to discover, a bit of a monster. Mr. Pucci, emerging slowly from behind a stray lock of brown hair, plays Justin's ambiguous transformation with deft understatement. And Mike Mills, who wrote and directed, keeps the film from slipping either into melodrama or facile satire, the two traps into which this genre is most apt to fall.
In adapting Mr. Kirn's book, Mr. Mills, making his feature-film debut after a varied career as a graphic artist and video director, has also updated and streamlined it, bringing the story from the early 1980's into the present day and pruning away a few subplots. His style is less antic than Mr. Kirn's, but he still manages to preserve the wry sense of absurdity that is the novel's great virtue. The characters, none of them blessed with much self-awareness, take themselves very seriously, and the comedy of their self-delusion is left for the audience to discover. Instead of structuring his scenes around obvious comic beats, Mr. Mills tiptoes in and out of them, so that our laughter and our understanding sneak up on us.
As does our appreciation of the acting. The adults (including Benjamin Bratt in a very funny cameo as a television star Audrey is infatuated with) are flawless, and Ms. Swinton, with her long face and long front teeth, has an unusually strong family resemblance to Mr. Pucci. Mr. D'Onofrio stealthily injects pathos into his marginal role, and Mr. Reeves and Mr. Vaughn manage to send up their movie-star images without calling undue attention to themselves. All of them give Mr. Pucci plenty of room and support, and allow him to give Justin an unusual and welcome degree of individuality. "Thumbsucker" is a modest movie, but its refusal of large gestures and loud noises is a decided virtue. It manages to show how calamitous and out of control (and also how thrilling) growing up odd and ordinary can be, without wallowing in its hero's occasional self-pity or condescending to him.
"Thumbsucker" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some profanity, teenage drug use and sexuality, and the graphic depiction of a nonorthodontic medical procedure.
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Mike Mills; written by Mr. Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; director of photography, Joaquin Baca-Asay; edited by Haines Hall and Angus Wall; music by Tim De Laughter; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by Anthony Bregman and Bob Stephenson; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 96 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Lou Pucci (Justin Cobb), Tilda Swinton (Audrey Cobb), Vince Vaughn (Mr. Geary), Vincent D'Onofrio (Mike Cobb), Keanu Reeves (Perry Lyman), Benjamin Bratt (Matt Schramm), Kelli Garner (Rebecca) and Chase Offerle (Joel Cobb).
A gentle, beautifully acted character study about a suburban high-schooler dealing with atypical teenage angst, "Thumbsucker" is a quirky coming-of-age tale where just about every character is going through some sort of change. Director Mike Mills, making his feature debut, enlisted big names for the supporting roles. But it's current indie "It" boy Lou Pucci, as an introverted teen with a thing for thumbs, who holds his own with the likes of Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn. Pucci plays 17-year-old Justin Cobb, a closet thumbsucker whose infantile habit seemingly soothes his insecurities and fears about growing up. But Justin also has to put up with parents going through their own growing pains - a father (D'Onofrio) having a mid-life crisis and a mother (Swinton) who may be having an affair with a TV star (Benjamin Bratt). A deadpan Reeves is a hoot as Justin's New Age dentist searching for an identity, while Vaughn, playing against type, is solid as Justin's manipulative debate-club teacher living through his students. Yet it's Pucci - who's already won a couple of acting prizes on the festival circuit, including Sundance - who steals the film with a wonderful performance blending the awkward innocence, vulnerability and pain of being a teen.
Odyssey of dependencies Teen passes through variety of addictions in clever coming-of-age tale Friday, September 16, 2005 BY LISA ROSE Star-Ledger Staff
Template-driven filmmaking isn't restricted to Hollywood back lots. Indie directors are just as prone to formula as their studio counterparts. A particularly popular premise to clone is the misfit teen coming-of-age tale. The trend dates back to 1995's suburban angst manifesto, "Welcome to the Dollhouse." "Thumbsucker" has all the hallmarks of the subgenre: eccentric characters, deadpan humor, hipster soundtrack (as performed by the Polyphonic Spree) and irony writ large. While it isn't a pioneering piece of filmmaking, "Thumbsucker" travels a familiar path in an engaging way, bolstered by a heady cast and smart, unsparing writing. Director Mike Mills, adapting a novel by Walter Kirn, allows the actors room to experiment. Vince Vaughn plays against smooth-talking type, Keanu Reeves mocks his "Matrix" persona, and Benjamin Bratt offers a memorable portrayal of a desperate drug addict. The main character is played by Lou Pucci, a promising newcomer with Central Jersey roots. Justin (Pucci) is a teenager who clings to childhood by sucking his thumb. Arrested development runs in the family, as his parents (Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio) hold fast to youth as well. His mother worships celebrities. His father seeks to relive high school glory through athletic competitions. Justin's New Age orthodontist and surrogate father figure, Perry (Reeves) tries to heal him through hypnosis. Justin kicks the habit, but his grades begin to plummet. A guidance counselor diagnoses him with attention deficit disorder and suggests a Ritalin regimen. Justin's thumb dependency turns into drug dependency. The medication helps him focus academically, and he soon emerges as the star of the debate team, led by a lecherous coach (Vaughn). He crashes and burns just as quickly, however, replacing the meds with marijuana, courtesy of his hippie dream girl (Kelli Garner). Blunt insight and provocative metaphor pervade Justin's journey, along with a generous amount of acerbic wit. We'll forgive the director the indulgent dream sequences. Even though everyone in the central character's life is emotionally stunted in some way, he learns something through each of his relationships. His experiments with various antidotes help him to ultimately recognize that there was nothing to cure in the first place
Thumbsucker Posted Sep 15, 2005, 10:00 PM ET by Karina Longworth
A couple of absurdly attractive middle-aged suburbanites lie in bed at the end of a long day, playfully nibbling on one another, until the female half stops to wonder aloud if their teenage son is having sex. A mother enlists her son's help in shopping for a dress to wear to get the attention of the TV star with whom she hopes to have an affair. A 17-year-old girl gets her boy best-friend friend high, blindfolds him, and orders him to suckle her ample breasts. It's not HBO, it's Thumbsucker, the new movie from artist/music video director Mike Mills, which ends an almost year-long festival lap by opening in select theaters tomorrow. It's a curious thing, this film; episodic yet rambling, by turns sex farce and existential soap. It covers no real new territory for a top-tier indie, and yet it's an extremely satisfying film to sit through, funny and bittersweet, and unexpectedly epic in its emotional range. It almost seems to play the flip side to Gregg Araki's fabulous film from earlier this year, Mysterious Skin. That was the story of suburban teenagers trying to figure out how to be sexual beings whilst hiding dark, terrible secrets; this is the story of suburban teenagers trying to figure out how to be sexual beings, when their desires alone feel like dark, terrible, secrets. It's not hard to turn tragedy into comedy; a stroke of the mundane is all it takes. Lou Taylor Pucci plays Justin Cobb, a 17-year-old who can't seem to stop sucking his thumb. He locks himself in the school toilet on rough days, knees bowed, digit in mouth, eyes dripping with self-disgust. At home, Justin looks on in horror as Audrey (a fabulous Tilda Swinton) enters a contest to win a date with her favorite TV hearthrob (Benjamin Bratt) – and then eventually changes jobs in an apparent attempt to be near him). He's in love with what at first seems to be the most emotionally mature 17-year-old girl on the planet, a Greenpeace freak named Rebecca (Kelli Garner). His kid brother (Chase Offerle) taunts him for not yet having had sex ("I hear it's the softest thing ever"). He has Vincent D'Onofrio for a dad. You'd suck your thumb, too. Keanu Reeves plays Dr. Perry Lyman, who we instantly recognize as what would happen if Ted Theodore Logan, his bogus journey behind him, had traded in Kiss for Enya and decided to become an orthodontist. Dr. Lyman sucessfully hypnotizes Justin into thinking his thumb tastes like eccinacea. Now everytime he tries to suck it he gags, but instead of thanking his orthodontist, Justin turns hysterical without his crutch. He calls Dr. Lyman and begs him to reverse the process. When the doctor refuses, Justin gets angry, and gets arrested trying to get revenge. The next thing you know, Mr. Geary, Justin's debate coach (played by Vince Vaughn, who more and more seems like the best comedic actor of that whole gang he runs with, if not of his entire generation) is recommending Ritalin. The elder Cobbs, wracked with working-class parental guilt, need to be coaxed into the pharmaceutical solution. Audrey, a nurse, is wary of a quick fix; D'Onofrio's Mike, already embarrassed of Justin's long hair and skinny frame and saliva-soaked appendage, doesn't need to see another sign of his son's weakness. But Justin begs to be medicated. He doesn't like the way he is; he's not the romantically self-destructive type. The only thing he could possible hate more than being the guy who sucks his thumb is being the guy who can't face a life without thumsucking. He sees Ritalin as his only way out of otherwise sick and sad fate. It works. Overnight, Justin morphs from a touchy-feely hippie in love, to a hard-as-nails, debate star/world-class bullshitter. Pre-Ritalin, Justin had the look of a zoo animal starting to atrophy to its cage. But the drugs melt down Justin's every reservation, and he's the only one who isn't surprised to see a rock star emerge. Even Mr. Geary, whose own life is given an injection of sudden meaning by Justin's debate ass-kicking, starts to wonder if maybe his protege hasn't gone too far. "Are you learning anything?" he asks after Justin brutally vaniquishes another opponent. Without missing a beat, Justin fires back, "I'm learning how to win."More than that - he's learning how to fight. It falls apart for him at some point, and on his long way down Justin reacqaints himself with Rebecca. The two launch into the kind of psychologically-loaded teenage sexcapade series that a lesser film would stretch out for its duration, but it's a subplot that might be too much for this one to handle. Garner is phenomenally sexy in a real-life-girl sort of way. She and Rachel McAdams, I think, represent a new trend in Hollywood beauty – 2006 will be the year of the Big-Eyed Brunette. Her presence in Thumbsucker is such an intoxicating and overwhelming one, both for Justin and for the film space, that in hindsight it's hard to reconcile the fact that Justin goes from master debater to strung-out sex slave in the span of about three minutes. There's no question that it makes for incredibly pleasurable viewing, but in its resolution it raises a pile of questions that seem at odds with the film's other goals. Or maybe it's just tough to watch such a pretty, innocent looking girl devolve into a manipulative slag. In fact, it actually hurts. If thought of as a series and snapshots and vignettes, Thumbsucker adds up to fully satisfying portrait of one teenage year. Small gestures – sideways glances, the flick of a page, a second cigarette lit at the finish of the first – stack up to create towers. Pucci is so good, that in the final scenes it truly feels like you've sat in on a year in his life, but it's the supporting cast that really makes Thumbsucker work. Keep an eye on D'Onofrio: impenetrable the whole film, he says one line towards the end that cracks the whole thing open like an egg. The true aims of the film, also a little distant up until that point, start to ooze out. I defy anyone, at that point, not to get a little wrapped up in the goo.
Old Habits Die Hard Teenage thumbsucking in a world of adult children By SETH J. BOOKEY
Mental health professionals often emphasize that people often engage in behaviors that make them feel safe. Some of these things are manifestations of the mind seeking comfort or familiarity from childhood memories. But in other cases, it's a lot more simple—merely a matter of continuing a habit from younger years that "adults are supposed to outgrow." In the case of Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), nothing is more comforting, more soothing than sucking his thumb. Of course, at 17 years old, this habit, harmless though it might be is a cause for great concern to his family in Mike Mills’ new movie "Thumbsucker." The adults in Justin’s life are all hiding behind a variety of personas that mask their own unhappiness and insecurities. His parents, Mike and Audrey, insist that their two sons call them by their first names, rather than Mom and Dad, because they don't want to admit they are responsible adults in their 40s. Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) is barrel-like and graying but has let an injury that sidelined a potential football career overshadow his entire adult life. Audrey (Tilda Swinton) seems generally disconnected, fantasizing about a TV star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), go so far as to get a job at the celebrity rehab center where the actor winds up. She takes Justin dress shopping and asks him, "Do you think Matt would like me in this?" Little brother Joel feels the pressure "to be the normal one" in the family and wisely distances himself from everyone, in part by gay-baiting Justin—"How come you never talk to girls?" Outside his family, Justin's debate coach (Vince Vaughn) lives vicariously through his students. Rebecca, a potential girlfriend for Justin, initially casts him aside when he refuses to open up to her, but later manipulates him, because she can. And finally, Justin's orthodontist Perry (Keanu Reeves) tries a new age approach on his patient, suggesting hypnosis as a way to get to some root problems, asking, "Are you ready to let go of your thumb?” But the hypnosis leaves Justin feeling screwed up, and his resulting manic state prompts his teachers to suggest he try Ritalin. The medication helps, but adds an unmistakable arrogance to Justin’s style. His relationship with his debating coach is soon undermined, and he’s quickly drawn into a maze of sex and drugs. "Thumbsucker" excels in exposing the fragility that saddles the average family. At one point, Audrey, pale and faint, notes, "I thought having a family meant you'd never be lonely." When the Ritalin helps Justin win debates, Mike says to Audrey, "It was easier when he was always screwing up." The truth of the matter is that Mike is unable to deal with his son head-on one way or the other. A persistent theme in the movie is that that everyone seeks company, but cannot bear the companionship when it appears. "Thumbsucker" is dominated by detachment and sadness. Happiness remains a possibility, but Mom longs for the approval of a TV cop and Dad has spent almost two decades wondering "what if? Perry seems to offer Justin the strongest bond, but when he tell him, "The trick is living without an answer... I think," it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this latest aphorism is simply yet another "answer." Director Mike Mills does a great job of using the Oregon suburban landscape to underscore the film's themes of alienation and yearning. Justin is often separated from others by lampposts, fences, trees, and roadways. Mills uses a music to create moods as well, and, though overdone a bit, it often it works well, with one song suggesting we "find some beautiful place to get lost." Along with an excellent script, "Thumbsucker" has great casting. D'Onofrio and Swinton are young enough to fit the bill of parents who can't believe they are old enough to have a teenage son. Reeves, who excels in this sort of character role, is perfect as the would-be guru, and his chemistry with Pucci suggests an older brother or mentor relationship that works quite nicely. “Thumbsucker” is often moody and deals with fraught themes, but is far from a downer. During one of his debates, Justin questions the idea that "everybody has to be the same." Ultimately, the film makes clear that Justin has to find his own way in the world.
American Brooding Suburban renewal: Annoying teen-angst subgenre gets a refresher course in wistful emo by Jessica Winter
Emo cinema adds another quirky, wistful member to its ranks with Thumbsucker, whose young suburbanite hero fits the type of pharmaceutically enhanced searcher-seer previously established from American Beauty to Garden State. Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is 17 and still suckles his thumb, an intractable habit that marks him out for mockery at school and incurs the wrath of his macho dad, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), who interprets his sensitive kid's every shortcoming as a personal affront. Justin's "holistic orthodontist," Dr. Perry Lyman, tries hypnotherapy, urging Justin to invoke his "power animal"—a deer in the forest, as it turns out—for help in casting out his organic pacifier. As played by Keanu Reeves in a nicely self-parodic turn, pensive stoner Lyman isn't a quack; indeed, if Freud was onto anything in attributing oral fixation, and the catastrophic dentistry that goes with it, to bad parenting, then every orthodontist should cross-train as a shrink. Nor would Freud call a thumb a thumb if he could see how longingly Justin gazes at his mom, Audrey (Tilda Swinton). School authorities take a more prosaic approach, diagnosing Justin's listlessness and indirection not as adolescence but as ADHD. Hopped up on Ritalin, Justin becomes a cocaine-tongued speed reader, exuding debate team prowess and a certain lack of inhibition about lying. Justin's parents join him at the displacement activity group table, whether they realize it or not: Mike projects his embitterment about his truncated college football career onto his family, while Audrey, a nurse who's startled to find herself in early middle age, is obsessed with TV hunk Matt Schraam (Benjamin Bratt). Everybody has a thumb, be it prescription meds, celebrity, nostalgia, or heaps of pot—the movie looks away for a moment and Justin's crush, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), transforms from earnest do-gooder to raccoon-eyed burnout, a mutation any high school vet will recognize with a shiver. Enriched by Joaquín Baca-Asay's richly hued, blurred-edges cinematography and the enveloping faux-gospel of the Polyphonic Spree, Thumbsucker isn't as sour as the 1999 Walter Kirn novel on which it's loosely based, and is less beholden to sitcom-episodic set pieces. Exiting a press screening a while back, however, I overheard an otherwise mild-mannered audience member growl, "Another f***ing American suburban teen-angst film." Snip off the expletive and you've got a perfectly fair nutshell of the endearing and well-acted Thumbsucker, and you can throw in much of whatever's left of the Sundance-Amerindie project too (The Chumscrubber and Me and You and Everyone We Know also premiered this year at Park City). The inevitably irritating prevalence of this limited subgenre is something of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: In a different filmmaking climate—less dependent on proven formulas, less lab tested and producer oriented (Thumbsucker has nine), less flushed with book-option fever—one wouldn't necessarily expect an established short-film director, designer, and gallery artist like Mills to choose Donnie Darko Redux as his first feature any more than you'd anticipate Miranda July to make a movie lightly redolent of Todd Solondz. When Justin at last finds an escape hatch from tree-lined limbo, the optimistic viewer might read it as an allegory of the American Filmmaker's dearest wish.
Mike Mills on His Sincere "Thumbsucker" by Dan Persons
For 17 year-old Justin (Lou Pucci), planting an opposable digit firmly in mouth is just a way taking a little pressure off a stress-filled life. For those who surround him, including concerned parents (Vincent D'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton), insecure debate coach (Vince Vaughn), and soulful dentist (Keanu Reeves), the habit is a major roadblock to health, happiness, and success. Mike Mills directorial debut, "Thumbsucker," is a survey of people immersed in the universal battle against self-doubt, exploring the sometimes comical lengths that humans will go to just to feel good about themselves. IFC News' Dan Persons spoke to Mills:
So, thumb sucking. Very bad for teeth.
That's what they say, yes. That's true.
Did you keep a dentist handy?
We had a dentist on-set to make sure that Keanu's hand movements and his tools and all that were right. And we shot in a real dentist's office with a dentist right there. More than that, I talked to this doctor who was out of the University of Reno and specializes in digital fixations. We talked a lot about the medical take on thumbsucking, and it's like Keanu says at the end: There's nothing really wrong with it, there's nothing regressive about it. It's a form of self-soothing, like many other things we do. It's taboo because of mixing it up with something sexual, or... I think an adult soothing himself in many ways is taboo in contemporary America.
I have to admit, going into this with just a superficial notion of the story line, I was like, "Okay, bring on the 'Donnie Darko'/'Chumscrubber' stuff." The film's not like that, though.
You know what's funny? Doing all this press stuff, I just went to England, and no one had that. In England, no one approaches it that way. In America, I spend most of my time talking people out of that. In America, the whole suburb thing is more hackneyed in films. I have no interest in making fun of people who live in suburbs, or saying that the suburbs are a land of denial and dysfunction and dah, dah, dah. [Unlike] "Donnie Darko" and "Chumscrubber" — I haven't seen "Chumscrubber," but from what I've heard — I have no interest in being cynical or arch or satirical with these people. I'm much more interested in films like "Harold and Maude," or "Ordinary People," or "The Ice Storm," which are all about implicating the audience, not making fun of the people on the screen.
You've got the likes of Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn in supporting roles. How did you manage to land them?
It's a couple of layers. One is that for two years I couldn't get anybody to finance this film. Everybody you could possibly think of, including Sony Classics, all said, "No." So it seemed like it was dead, and I thought this thing I had been working on for like three and a half, four years now, it was over, or was a mistake. But I just kept on going, because I didn't have anything else and I couldn't deal with the failure concept of it. Simultaneously, while this bad news is happening, the script is going out to actors, and it's sort-of having this crazy, take-off life, where people who didn't even ask to read it are reading it and telling their friends. The amount of people... Viggo Mortenson wanted to be in this also, and Steve Buscemi, and Scarlett Johansson, and Elijah Wood. The list goes on and on and on — so many people. So I had this huge pool of people that gave me the huge privilege to not only get big people but to get the right big person for the role. I needed that whole list of people to club down the door.
What's surprised you about the reception this film has gotten?
Everything. Even the concept of an audience. I'm used to the concept of an audience, but actually meeting them has been a revelation for me. It's been, "Oh, yeah, right. This is why you do it." Abstractly, I didn't really know until I had, like, weepy-eyed people coming up to me and telling me something very personal about their mom. It's very hard for me to take compliments, I'm very suspicious about compliments, especially as a director. Who really comes up to you and insults you? Very few people. It's really been a very big life-lesson for me — that film is communication with people. Especially if you're making a film about emotional lives, it's really a pretty deep level of intimacy that you're making with strangers. I'm really so very lucky that I get to do that
'Thumbsucker' Director Mike Mills teen angst movie is smarter than usual, but it's still not distinctive enough to stand out. Although the intellectual level of "Thumbsucker" is quite a few cuts above many teen angst movies and the film boasts several impressively nuanced portrayals as well, it is not sufficiently distinctive to stand wholly apart from the pack. Furthermore, its literary roots peek through rather too often in dialogue that might play well on the page but doesn't sound real when coming out of the mouths of actors. It is also not altogether surprising that it's a first film for its director, Mike Mills, who focuses intensely on his actors but reveals little cinematic flair. This is crucial because at heart "Thumbsucker" is yet another film about the self-absorbed, the young especially, and "Thumbsucker" could have been enriched by a filmmaker who could link his people to their world in a manner that would be in some way revealing. Most definitely, "Thumbsucker" is a film of words rather than images. In the title role, Lou Pucci as Justin Cobb is a pale, thin 17-year-old with angular features who still sucks his thumb, much to the consternation of his father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), a college football star traumatically sidelined by a knee injury and now the conscientious manager of a large suburban sporting goods store in Oregon, apparently near Portland. The Cobbs live in a spacious home near a forest; Mike's wife, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), is a registered nurse smitten with a TV heartthrob (Benjamin Bratt) with whom she will cross paths in a most unexpected fashion. Justin, who doesn't fit in neatly with his peers or in the classroom, is too self-preoccupied to regard his resilient and self-reliant younger brother Joel (Chase Offerle) — a character actually more original than the oh-so-sensitive and vulnerable Justin — as anything but obstinate. Justin has somehow managed to end up on a debate team, though he has no taste for debating. This at once enrages and challenges his coach, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn, cast stunningly against type). In tandem with a high school official, Geary declares that Justin, though bright, is doing poorly in school because he suffers from attention-deficit disorder and prescribes Ritalin or its equivalent. How Audrey, as a registered nurse, could go along with this arbitrary, unscientific and dangerous diagnosis defies credibility, but out of somewhere comes a prescription. In no time Justin is transformed into a confident achiever, a champion debater, articulate, glib and arrogant. Although the focus remains primarily on Justin, who is not all that intriguing a character despite Pucci's mercurial portrayal, the clear point of the picture is that the insecurities of its teens mirror those of adults, and this is Justin's big discovery. Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is an episodic film of fits and starts. Justin's orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) figures out a way to break Justin from thumb-sucking rather easily, and Geary drops out of the film. Kelli Garner, on the other hand, is a pretty classmate who intrigues Justin and then disappears only to return to toy with him cruelly. Mills does best by D'Onofrio, whose Mike is a highly intelligent man but, like many American males, unable to express his feelings, and by Offerle, whose Joel seems like a real, live boy. Vaughn's Geary, smart and overbearing yet ultimately overeager to be accepted by his students as a peer, is perhaps the film's most intriguing presence, but the film leaves one wanting to know more about him. Swinton reveals all the sides of Audrey, but the role remains problematic. Reeves' orthodontist is no more than a literary conceit and, despite Reeves' charm, remains a caricature of a New Age guru subject to drastic philosophical swings. (Reeves and Pucci have a slight but weird physical resemblance, and they're both guys whose long hair keeps falling down over their faces.) Bratt has presence and humor, but his big scene is as improbable as all of Reeves' scenes. "Thumbsucker" aims high but swerves too frequently between the engaging and the credibility-defying to be satisfying.
Keanu Reeves Gets 'Thumbsucker' Role Thanks To Director's Dog Co-star. Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, helped raise money to make the film. By Larry Carroll
How do you get an A-list star to appear in your movie-directing debut? According to Keanu Reeves, it's easy. "I got the script, read the script, really liked it," Reeves remembered recently while discussing his participation in the low-budget "Thumbsucker." "I went to [the director's] office, sat at a table ..." "My dog smelled you," smiled Mike Mills, the former music-video director now benefiting from Reeves' accessibility. "I got smelled," agreed Reeves, "we had a lovely conversation, and I was in." OK, but how do you get the money to then make the film? According to "Vanilla Sky" and "Adaptation" star Tilda Swinton, you simply hire her. "Well, it's kind of what I do, to be honest with you," Swinton said, remembering the 18 months she spent after being cast in "Thumbsucker" harassing friends while helping Mills find financiers for his project. "It's what I've always done; it's a habit I learned early when I started making films. Mike Mills was the thing that I was into, and any film that he had wanted to make I would have wanted to help him make." "Thumbsucker" is many different things to many different people: a "Clockwork Orange"-type indictment of the notion that people can be "corrected"; a "Donnie Darko"-esque study of a depressed, unceasingly sarcastic teen and the odd world that surrounds him; a critique of our Prozac nation; a study of the secret insecurities of your parents; and, most importantly, a heart-tugging, belly-tickling piece of art. Attendees of the 2005 Berlin Film Festival saw the film as containing their Best Acting performance, by newcomer Lou Pucci; the Sundance Film Festival agreed. "I got on a plane to audition for this part," Pucci remembered of his starring role as Justin the Thumbsucker, a part that required him to get on an aircraft for the first time. "I could relate to it really easily, which is good." When Justin's titular problem still afflicts him at age 17, he undergoes various attempts to make him "normal." With the help of a New Age orthodontist (Reeves), eager-to-medicate parents (Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio), a sexy new goth girlfriend (Kelli Garner) and a cripplingly insecure debate teacher (Vince Vaughn), Justin breaks his habit while substituting Ritalin instead. As Justin's mom chases after a cheesy TV heartthrob (Benjamin Bratt) and his dad awkwardly remains hung up on his long-abandoned college football glories, you begin to realize that "Thumbsucker" is almost as difficult to describe as it is to hate. For Mills, the cure-all concept of prescription drugs is something that seemed ripe for a film topic. "There's so many grays in it," the director said. "It would be my last resort to medicate, if I had a child, but that isn't to say it doesn't help some people in some ways. My only fear about it is when it becomes commercialized and institutionalized, part of a school program that pharmaceutical companies do for profit. Those are the parts that scare me. ... Pharmacology is huge, and it's a big, monstrous thing for us all to start talking about." "One of the aspects I like about the film is that there is a kind of emotional, psychological discussion during the storytelling," Reeves said before summing up the film's true meaning. "Before taking a drug, go through yourself, experience yourself, all your hopes and fears in your own time. Before the pharmacology, do the psychology." As for their own supposed "bad habits" that society may want to rid them of, the cast does admit to a few, and a few others they'd love to obtain. A playful Swinton demonstrated while admitting, "I am a thumb-sucker. Well I was, and I'm sad to say that it has given me up. I've been trying ever since we started shooting to rekindle it, but it doesn't work. I'm working on it, and I'd like to take it up again." "I don't think that's a bad habit; I think sucking your thumb is an OK habit," laughed Pucci. "Somebody's bad habit could be smoking, that's kind of a bad habit because it's harmful to you. But thumb-sucking really can't hurt you, except for your dental plan." "I still sleep with my stuffed animal," confessed the 21-year-old Garner. "It's an elephant named Elle E. Phant ... she's back at the Four Seasons [hotel], chilling in style while I'm working."
Lou Taylor Pucci wowed Sundance audiences with his understated performance as a seventeen-year-old coming to grips with the fact that he's still a 'Thumbsucker.' You'd be one too if your dentist was Keanu Reeves. See them both in an exclusive clip.
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More about the movie: Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is 17, and he still sucks his thumb. Even though it worries his mother (Tilda Swinton), irritates his father (Vincent D'Onofrio), and threatens his prospects with debate team crush Rebecca (Kelli Garner), he can't stop sucking until his "guru" orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) hypnotizes him. Hypnosis frees Justin from his thumbsucking problem, but he still doesn't feel "normal." He experiments with Ritalin, pot and sex as substitutes for his thumb but they only provide temporary solutions, as he remains unable to shake his feelings of alienation. Justin looks for guidance from his parents, his debate team coach (Vince Vaughn), and even TV star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), before he finally comes to understand that no one has an easy answer, everyone is struggling to figure out their own lives, and there is no such thing as "normal."
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Some filmmakers like to stick to the script; others find gold in wandering off the path. Mike Mills, director and writer (based on Walter Kirn's novel) of the coming-of-age dark comedy "Thumbsucker," is one of the latter. His film, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (opening Friday at the Metro and Uptown), bears little resemblance to the screenplay he wrote.
And likewise, the film's six-year journey to the screen wasn't quite the smooth path Mills might have pictured. But it included the arrival of an unexpected savior — the actress Tilda Swinton, best known for "Orlando" and "The Deep End" — and some off-the-cuff techniques for the actors that helped make the film's Cobb family spring to life.
Creating characters was something new for Mills, a music-video and commercials director who had never made a feature film before. He did plenty of prep work before shooting began last year: reading books about directing, taking acting classes, talking to directors about their work. From that research, he devised an approach based on improvisation.
The cast dove in, and included Swinton (whose enthusiasm for the project led her to become a co-executive producer of the film), Lou Pucci, Vincent D'Onofrio and Keanu Reeves. During the rehearsal period, they developed their characters by improvising scenes not in the film — "when they met, what their parents were like," said Mills, in Seattle with Pucci for an interview this week.
Pucci, a young actor whose biggest previous gig was understudying the two Von Trapp sons in "The Sound of Music" on Broadway, portrayed Justin Cobb, a teen who copes with his troubled family by sucking his thumb and taking prescription drugs. "[Mills] had very weird things that he did to get us kind of into it," he said, remembering the process. "They had me be born, sort of, into the family. Vincent and Tilda were together without me for a whole day, and then the next day I was there, and it was about how that happened in their lives, how they interacted." Pucci won prizes for his performance at Sundance and at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In rehearsal, the script was constantly changing. "Some of the lines, they would say these amazing things and I would stick them into the script," said Mills. "Or I would create a whole new scene, based on the interaction that they had, and just throw it in. Sometimes they would improvise on camera, and sometimes right before we shot, and they would come up with something better, like a whole scene."
One scene, of Justin's parents (Swinton and D'Onofrio) talking in bed, came about in an especially roundabout way. "We did long, improvised scenes and filmed them," said Mills. "I didn't use them, but I used the dialogue from them, put them back together in a different order and re-shot it with them. It's the most labor-intensive way you can make a scene!"
Mills says the main ideas remained the same throughout the process, except for one major subplot that was removed (he won't say what). "All these different things happened, but it's not that different from the story or the beats of the story. It's like, we personalized it to the actors."
Getting the film made was something of an improvisation as well — one that took six years. As with many independent films, Mills spent years working on the screenplay while trying to get financing. Swinton, ultimately, was "the big savior" of the film, said Mills. "That someone I respected so much wanted to do it gave me such faith. Then, when things started to get rough, and things weren't going well, she was really great at saying to me, 'Keep going, you're not crazy.' One 'You're not crazy' from Tilda Swinton equals five 'You're crazy' from big producers."
The film opened in New York this month, and Mills remembered, with a smile, hosting a Q&A on opening night. "There was this little girl who raised her hand. She said, 'Did you like making the movie?' I was trying to say that, well, it's like having a girlfriend for six years, there's good points and bad points. Then I said, 'Wait a minute, how old are you? She said, '8.' I said, well, I've been making this film for most of your life. How's your life been so far? She said, 'Good.'
"It's been like life, you know, a roller coaster."
"Let me not grope in vain in the dark but keep my mind still in the faith that the day will break and truth will appear in its simplicity." ~~~R. Tagore, Whisperings~~~
Okay, just came from it and it was actually a pretty cute weird little movie. VDO was amazingly understated - somewhat the way he was in Jodie Foster's Catholic boy movie. He did a fabulous job with what is fundamentally, a dad in the suburbs part. The kid was so 17.
Post by blucougar57 on Sept 29, 2005 18:12:29 GMT -5
There doesn't seem to be any hint of a release date for it here in Australia, either for the cinemas or straight to DVD. I hope it's released to the cinemas. With the exception of MiB, I've never seen VDO on the big screen. Even if it is a lesser role, it'd still be worth the $12.50 I have to pay. Boy, it sucks being a grown up, sometimes...
Goren: She was still making all her notes in Russian. Eames: If you tell me you read Russian as well... Oh, brother...