“We have to overcome the idea that everyone is the same.” --Thumbsucker
It started out as a slightly above-average teenage coming-of-age story. Three fourths of the way through it, I was enjoying myself but not about to rush into the streets screaming its name at the top of my lungs.
And then came the final act.
And. Everything. Came. Together. Beautifully.
And with that, a good film became a great film. What a beautifully humane and life-affirming movie. The sort we rarely see. There are plenty of films, especially those centered around teens, that are bleak and frankly, exploitative in nature. They seem to revel in the fact that they are without hope. And then there's Thumbsucker.
Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) seems to be your normal 17 year old. Except that his greatest comfort is also his greatest thorn in the flesh—Justin still sucks his thumb. Justin's thumbsucking is the film's metaphor for whatever makes us different, the thing others can't accept, the symbol of everything we fear or dislike about ourselves.
Justin lives in a soulless suburb with a father (Vincent D'Onofrio) who is emotionally vacant, frozen out of any ability to carry on a meaningful conversation with his son, let alone tell him he loves or is proud of him, and a mother (Tilda Swinton) who certainly loves him and tells him so, but is, at times, little more than a teenager herself.
At school, Justin is a loner, unable to connect with anyone, least of all the girl he likes. His grades are plummeting. Justin's new age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) is sympathetic to his discomfort. He recommends connecting with his power animal to overcome his problems. When that doesn't work, Justin turns to sex and drugs in order to cope.
Then comes a guidance counselor's advice the Justin begin taking Ritalin. Soon everything changes. He joins the debate team and learns that he has a gift--he excels at shredding his opponents. Unfortunately he also begins shredding those he loves, causing him to throw his pills out. It seems, at least to him, that he is doomed to a life as either a loner or a monster. (All of this mischief is set to the delightful music of the Polyphonic Spree through the late Elliot Smith. )
That's the gist of the first few acts.
What makes Thumbsucker so empathetic is that it understands that it's never easy to be a teenager—to be tossed about on the whims of peers just as confused as you are; to have parents who simply don't understand where you are coming from. On the crest of adulthood, teens often don't have the experience or life-knowledge to know what to do. Thumbsucker doesn't deny that it's a big, bad world out there. But it does ask for a little compassion.
In the final act, Justin has been accepted to NYU (way to go Justin, I hear it's a great school!) and just before he leaves, stops by to see his orthodontist, Perry, one last time. But the office has changed. And so has Perry. For whatever reason, Perry is a humbled man, no longer spouting new age fixes or self-help creeds. He may not be as confident as the last time we saw him, but he seems more...content. Justin asks him why.
“I stopped trying to be anything. I accepted myself and all of my human disorder. You might wanna do the same. Justin...there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“It felt like everything was wrong with me.”
“That's 'cause we all wanna be problemless. To fix ourselves. We look for some magic solution to make us all better, but none of us really know what we're doing. And why is that so bad? That's all we humans can do. Guess. Try. Hope. But, Justin, just pray you don't fool yourself into thinking you've got the answer. Because that's bullshit. The trick is living without an answer. I think...I think.”
Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely beautiful.
One of the things that makes Thumbsucker so wonderful is that nobody in it is a villain. All the characters are flawed and addicted to something—be it drugs or control or fantasy—but they are all, in the end, simply human. Thumbsucker doesn't excuse addiction or misdeeds, but it is insistent that we begin looking at those things we tend to inflate to right or wrong issues and begin seeing them as flaws, yes, but flaws that make us who we are and that we be OK with that.
Funny, wise, moody, vulnerable, adorable and nuanced, Thumbsucker is a film we can cheer for--in the street or in our living rooms.