About once a year -- twice, if we're lucky -- a first-time director shows up with something original, electrifying and humane, a film that shows us a new way to see, that presents complex and memorable people in whom we recognize ourselves. Last year, it was Joshua Marston and Maria Full of Grace. This year, it's writer/director Mike Mills, and his film is Thumbsucker.
Justin Cobb (the excellent Lou Pucci) is seventeen. He lives with his parents and younger brother at the edge of the Oregonian suburbs, where new and lifeless housing developments run up against the edge of the leafy green forest. He goes to school. He's in the debate club. And he's not happy. Justin lacks confidence, unable to make it happen with the girl he likes. His schoolwork isn't what he knows it should be. His father's a pain in the ass, and he's worried about his mother's crush on a television actor. And he sucks his thumb.
It's such a beautiful trope, the thumb-sucking, because it works two ways. First, it's a big deal unto itself, a socially unacceptable act and a relic of childhood, like bed-wetting, that adolescents are supposed to have left behind. It's also a symbol of something else. Justin is different; he does something that others don't do and can't accept. His father (Vincent D'Onofrio), a college football player whose professional dreams were dashed by a knee injury, insists on getting the problem "under control." His mother (Tilda Swinton, stunning as usual) clucks and frets over her son's habit. And Justin's new-age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) attempts to hypnotize him out of it, directing him through a visualization that 1) supplies Justin with a "power animal" and 2) makes his thumb taste like echinacea.
Unfortunately, Justin's power animal is a deer. And when he can't suck his thumb, his anxiety runs amok, turning him sweaty and wiggy-eyed, plagued by fear.
What's wrong with him? Nobody quite knows. On the surface, his life isn't awful. His dad's a jerk, but mostly a benign one; his mother is loving, if distant and inappropriate at times. School isn't great, but his debate coach, played with gorgeous restraint by Vince Vaughn, is smart, likable and believes in Justin. But Thumbsucker reminds us: No matter what your situation, in whatever time or place, it's just not easy to be a teenager -- to be subject to the whims of your confused and searching peers, and parents, and teachers, and health-care professionals. The world is complex and often harsh, and teenagers don't have the experience, or the self-knowledge, to make much sense of it. They search, and they cope however they can. As the orthodontist says, it's a wonder more people don't suck their thumbs.
Of course, they do: They smoke and drink and take drugs and have sex and are imprisoned by coping mechanisms and addictions of every stripe. Thumbsucker is fascinated by addiction; Justin's mother, a nurse, gets herself transferred to a treatment center, where she can learn more about it and support people through it. (This places her in the same facility as her TV-actor crush, played by the oily Benjamin Bratt, who's drying out there; Justin believes that she did it on purpose.) Better, Thumbsucker understands that people can be, and almost always are, addicted to far subtler things than substances -- fantasies, dreams and ideas of themselves.
One of the things that's so lovely about the film is that nobody is a villain and everybody -- no matter the addiction -- is human. When, after a single question, the school guidance counselor diagnoses Justin with ADHD and throws pills his way, both parents question her wisdom. They try to steer Justin away from the pills, gently and with sensible logic, but he's gung-ho, convinced by the counselor's spin that the drug can rescue him. He thinks he's sick and that Ritalin can make him better. His parents aren't sure what to think, but they sense something amiss and offer their humble opinions. Nobody's right or wrong; everybody's just human and real.
Mills has written a gorgeous script, funny and wise and unique, stylized and moody but never tipping over into the realm of the self-consciously quirky. (In many ways, Thumbsucker is what You and Me and Everyone We Know wanted to be.) His direction is artfully nuanced and extremely attentive, resulting in a powerful ensemble piece with an adorable, vulnerable star turn from Lou Pucci. Even the music -- the Polyphonic Spree performing lugubrious covers in addition to several originals -- is perfect. Wherever Mike Mills has been hiding (directing music videos and commercials and designing album covers, it turns out), his emergence is a cause for celebration. Thumbsucker is supremely enjoyable.