Monday, 17 July 2006

Thumbsucker (DVD) (2005)

Mum says that thing will fall off if you continue to suck on it!

In 2000, Darren Aronofsky made a film called Requiem for a Dream, about suburban anomie, the general addiction of people to their dreams. What I hated, hated, and hated about the film was Aronofsky pulled a bait and switch with us, because the film wasn’t about the addiction of people to their mistaken dreams and ideals, but about their addiction to drugs. Not only that, the film was a nothing more than a banal, shrill scream (DRUGS ARE EVIL!!!11) that would have fit in with the 1950s moralising social problem scarefest genre that delighted in whipping up conservative suburbanites into a moral panic on the supposedly rampant phenomena of urban ghettoes, promiscuous youths, teen gangs, cross-dressing and other moral ills that will destroy civilisation as we know it. Instead of a look at how ordinary Americans (and by extension, other people) are prisoners of their dreams and desires, Aronofsky gave us a stylised MTV experience, replete with all the laughably self-indulgent "special effects" and gimmicky shots that he pioneered to better and more honest effect in Pi.

If you want an honest, down-to-earth movie about the human addiction to dreams and desires, about how bored suburbanites tend to escalate all their ordinary problems into Major Problems That Need Immediate Fixing, if you want a quirky growing up movie that isn’t patronising to its protagonist and audience – Thumbsucker is just the perfect movie, doing everything that Requiem for a Dream promised but never delivered.

In Thumbsucker, Justin Cobb (Loy Pucci) plays a teenager who never grew out of the habit. Normally, it isn’t that big an issue, but this kid has parents from the other side of the Twilight Zone. Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) – calling him Dad will make him feel old – and Audrey (Tilda Swinton) – calling her Mom would make Mike think she is too old – are incompetent parents, one a washed out has-been who blew his chance at entering the NFL and the other, a registered nurse with an unhealthy obsession on bad soap opera star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt). They’re completely nuts in the seemingly ordinary and boring suburban style, and probably the reason why Justin continues to suck his thumb in secret, or is painfully shy, insecure, and underachieving.

Justin’s New Age orthodontist Perry Lymann (Keanu Reeves), concerned with the constant tooth repairs he needs to make, suggests hypnosis to cure the addiction. Because it’s Keanu Reeves, the unlikely and flaky-sounding method does work, but once Justin is ‘cured’ (and not by Lymann alone!), he becomes a arrogant perfectionist and a star in the school debating team, scaring even his own debate coach.

And that’s just the beginning, as Justin continues his quest to be normal and ends up experimenting with increasingly bizarre cures and undergoing more teenage angst. While all this sounds typical of alienated teenagers, the script by Mike Mills makes it impossible to predict what would happen next, and when it happens, it’s both surreal and funny at the same time.

Movies about suburban angst tend to be exercises in navel-gazing (in a world where most people have worst lives than suburbanites), but the high calibre supporting cast of Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn and Keanu Reeves, supported by stripped-down camera aesthetics, add credibility and make interesting the central themes of "everyone has problems", "no one knows what they’re doing", and "everyone loves quick fixes to their problems". What I like about this movie is how it makes everyday teenage and suburban angst feel worthy of interest, without indulging in pathos. Its dry humour and the three cameo appearances by Keanu Reeves helps.

First published at incinemas on 17 July 2006

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