Thumbsucker (2005), or Indie-ana Jones And The Temple Of Angst

8 04 2009

I had a dream one night that I was an astronaut. I was walking around on moon-like terrain in the iconic space suit. There was nothing around me for miles and miles. I was all alone and possibly lost in the wilderness of an alien terrain. All of a sudden, I felt a tug on my back from a human hand. I turned around, and it appeared to be a man in a fedora and a suit that tugged at me. The skin on his face had been removed, so all that remained was a bloody skull. I ran out of fear as fast as I could with a space suit on, slowly floating in the trenches of a land scarred by meteorfall. I kept running and running, huffing and puffing, until I found myself on Earth again. He was always right behind me, and he wasn’t always a man; sometimes he was a horse and sometimes he was some other grotesque faceless beasts. I kept running, and with that damn suit on it was unbearable. It seemed like it would never end. Finally I woke up, paranoid and nervous, awaiting what came for me in the darkness, which, thankfully, was nothing at all. I talked about this to a friend of mine, and he asked me, “What do you think it means?” I replied to him, after some deliberation, saying, “Probably not a fucking thing.” The point I’m aiming at is that sometimes things don’t mean anything. The indie film scene has done a marvelous job at observing the minutia of life and exploring the correlations between that and the other, larger aspects of our lives. It is a wonderful movement that has added a number of important films to the canon of wonderful cinema. It has had the unfortunate side effect, however, of granting a sense of over-emboldened entitlement to some movies, all of which seem to carry a “meaning” that is at points both excruciatingly apparent and non-existent. Today’s film, Thumbsucker, is an indie comedy that is a satire of suburban cluelessness (kind of a tapped market), and while I appreciate its off-beat sensibilities, I can’t help but feel a very hollow heart to all this.

Thumbsucker is the story of Justin Cobb, an off-beat kid with the hipster hair and the hipster clothes who has a terrible habit; he still sucks his thumb. It sounds innocent, but it is a really bad habit for him (he’ll sometimes lock himself up in the bathroom and do it for a long while). It affects his confidence at school, his relationship with his dysfunctional family, and his attempts to woo his debate-team love interest Rebecca. It has also affected his teeth to the point where he needs to visit the orthodontist. His orthodontist just happens to be a super-cool dude and tries to hypnotize him out of this distasteful habit (what an awesome orthodontist!). It works at first, but he hates life without sucking his thumb. When his school counselor tries to prescribe Ritalin, will he take the drug and perhaps do better in school, relationships, and life all-around? Will his dysfunctional family approve of switching pill-popping for thumb-sucking? Will Justin ever be truly free of his habit?

It’s a less-than-sterling mish-mash of a number of other, more successful indie films. Think The Squid And The Whale meets The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a dysfunctional family movie about owning your strengths and weaknesses. It had potential, but the idea has been tapped already, and it needed a stronger, more original script to really sell it. The screenwriter and director, Mike Mills, preached during most of the film, and even in the trailer above, that being different is something to be proud of. I agree, but I wonder why this idea and his presentation of said idea is derivative of so many other styles?

The cast is strangely famous, considering the low profile of this low budget indie com-dram. Keanu Reeves is the super-cool orthodontist!!! He fits in very well with this laid-back character and actually gave me quite a chuckle here and there (“The trick is living without an answer. I think…”). Justin is played by Lou Taylor Pucci, star of the similar-looking-and-sounding The Chumscrubber. He was a very whiny character, so I don’t know whether to congratulate him or walk away from him in annoyance for his performance, because he succeeds in being whiny on what must have been a molecular level. Congratulations…? Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio fly by as Justin’s parents. I had almost forgotten they were in the movie, but apparently they were. Vince Vaughan is Mr. Geary, the debate team teacher, and even HE falls a little flat. All in all, hooray to Keanu Reeves and sigh to everyone else.

A note on the soundtrack. The original idea was supposed to be Elliott Smith recording a number of cover songs that would comprise the soundtrack, but he died a very gruesome death before the film was completed, so he only has three songs in the movie. The three songs are by far the best thing to be found here, as the rest of the songs are performed by The Polyphonic Spree. Not to say that the Spree have no talent, but Elliott Smith is Elliott Smith, so the three songs he provides are the most beautiful and provide any weight the film might actually carry.

I wouldn’t watch this movie unless you were a big indie comedy fan or unless you feel really, really angsty. Maybe if you like Keanu Reeves enough, this will tickle your fancy, but other than that I have not a lot more to add on this film. It was as forced and strained as a hipster comb-over, and I do not think that it has any value compared to some of the other fine indie comedies out there that this one clearly borrows from. It doesn’t mean anything, and it doesn’t even have enough weight to pretend that it does. I give Thumbsucker 3 1/2 hypnosis-wielding orthodontists out of 10.

Tomorrow is a surprise PSA! Keep an eye out until then!

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