Thumbsucker makes thumb sucking cool

by Glen Baity

A lot of people hate independent cinema for the same reasons they hate indie rock: it can be overly contemplative, self-indulgent, and condescending. Quite often, it appeals to people under the impression they’re much smarter than they actually are (not you, of course ‘— I’m talking about other people). And indie films ‘— let’s be honest ‘— can be unbearably pretentious. Not to generalize, but it’s a safe bet that if you watch enough of them, you’ll inevitably find one made by the guy you knew in college who only watched foreign films.

Thumbsucker comes dangerously close to hitting that nerve. The soundtrack credits alone ‘— ‘songs performed by the Polyphonic Spree,’ directly followed by ‘additional songs by Elliott Smith’ ‘— made my eyes roll involuntarily, and I’m an Elliott Smith fan. As the film unfolds, more easily-mockable conventions come to the fore: the sensitive teenage protagonist has a belligerent former football player for a father; the mother is passively hostile towards the family and overbearing with her teenage son; the son, of course, sucks his thumb involuntarily. It’s an upbringing I always imagined for the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional.

But there’s also a reason I love independent films, and independent music: it seems like they’re more apt to surprise you than their big-budget counterparts. Appropriately, this film caught me off guard.

Seventeen-year-old Justin Cobb (newcomer Lou Pucci) is the titular thumbsucker, a meek high school student with an interest in the debate club and an innocent crush on his classmate Rebecca (Kelli Garner). Several times a day he retreats into solitude to suck his thumb and stare catatonically at the wall. Only his parents and his dentist (Keanu Reeves) know his secret, and each has different ideas about how to cure him.

Justin kicks his habit after being hypnotized, only to take up Ritalin to ease the stress of withdrawal. With the drug honing his focus, he becomes a model student, leading his debate team to the state finals and gaining a measure of respect from his father (played with a perfect blend of aggression and vulnerability by Vincent D’Onofrio), an ex-football player who never got over being yesteryear’s Next Big Thing.

Success goes to Justin’s young head, and he begins to exhibit a weird type of ‘roid rage, lashing out at his teachers and supporters. Tellingly, Thumbsucker steers clear of family melodrama even as it avoids becoming a cautionary tale for the mood inhibitor age. By dodging these traps, it establishes itself as a film that deals with important issues without becoming about those issues. In my world, that passes for an impressive feat.

The film doesn’t take off immediately, and unfortunately it lays claim to more than its fair share of clichés ‘— each emotionally distant member of the Cobb family leads a life of quiet desperation, and the plot follows their paths back into one another’s good graces. Not that this isn’t a perfectly valid story or character set, nor does any of it ring false. But initially at least, it’s hard to distinguish it from other similarly themed films.

Thumbsucker swerves off-course midway through after Justin is cured of his behavioral tic, and it ends up a better film as a result. The deceptively simplistic characters become well developed, and it becomes obvious that the film is remarkably self-aware. There are still some unoriginal elements in the look and mood that might irritate some viewers, but its basic premise is undeniably important: that the struggle for meaningful connection is difficult and ultimately worthwhile. It’s a heartfelt, well-intentioned film, and because that always scores big with a softie like me I’m willing to forgive the trite soundtrack and the fact that too many of the characters are inexplicably dressed like it’s 1980 (this worked for Napoleon Dynamite, but just barely).

For all its posturing, the film has its priorities in order. Pucci’s performance is as natural as it is haunting, and he’s backed up by a strong supporting cast (even the reliably stiff Reeves pulls his weight). Thumbsucker is a sweet film that, while it could benefit from a little more levity, is worth discovering.

Glen Baity invites any Dashboard Confessional fans offended by his mockery to go suck their thumbs and cry. He can be reached for comment at egothelivingplanet@