American Beauty, Garden State, and its ilk be damned, the suburbs aren’t simply bizarre, surreal landscapes populated by depressed, aimless, heavily medicated white freakshows who live their lives with a mixture of repressed fury, regret, and misery. American filmmakers with nary a clue about commuter-friendly communities, however, can’t seem to help looking at middle-class America with bewildered fascination, filling their creepily sunshiny, spick-and-span fictional neighborhoods with messed-up protagonists who behave like extraterrestrials ill-equipped to comprehend or handle the stresses, strains, and complexities of modern existence. Suburbanites are, on average, no more or less dysfunctional than your average city or rural inhabitant. Yet somehow, this commonsensical fact seems to have been completely lost on director Mike Mills, whose adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel Thumbsucker—merely the latest overhyped Sundance hit to subscribe to such a laughably condescending viewpoint—indulges in the notion that those living outside the big city are socially and psychologically maladjusted morons eager to inhabit a fantasy reality lest they be forced to confront the horrifying imperfection of their own nutty nuclear family circumstances.
Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a 17-year-old who still sucks his thumb, an infantile habit that makes him feel like an outcast despite the fact that everyone around him—including dad Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), who’s still clinging to his long-gone pro football dreams, and rehab clinician mom Audrey (Tilda Swinton), who fantasizes endlessly about a TV actor (Benjamin Bratt)—is similarly stuck in a stunted-maturity rut. With the help of his kooky Zen guru orthodontist Dr. Lyman (Keanu Reeves) and his competitive debate class teacher Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), Justin substitutes Ritalin for his thumb, a move which transforms the mild-mannered, floppy-haired teen into a superstar academic. But because Kirn and Mills’s characters are misguided, unhappy people entirely incapable of self-analysis, it takes a series of uncomfortably awkward encounters with sex (courtesy of Kelli Garner’s cruel burnout) and success (thanks to Justin’s debate team triumphs) before Justin and all the surrounding sad, lonely people wake up and realize that sucking thumbs, taking mood-altering meds, or living in one’s own imagination, however temporarily helpful such coping mechanisms may be, are just false cures for that universal human condition of being less than totally satisfied with yourself.
Pucci looks like the offspring of Willy Wiggins and Miranda July, and as with July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mills’s film regularly teeters on the precipice of unbearable preciousness, utilizing slow-motion for Justin’s strolls through the high school halls, melancholic Elliott Smith tunes, unfunny dream sequences, and sub-Donnie Darko bits (Justin’s personal effects falling from the sky, his aggressive auditorium rants) in order to deliver the rather underwhelming message that it’s okay to be unusual. Despite its attempt at geek-chic weirdness, however, Thumbsucker is just the same old indie film jibber-jabber about the woeful plight of narcissistic pariahs in a world that prizes surface above substance. Perhaps recognizing that its portrait of suburban screw-ups lacks any hint of novelty, Mills attempts some scatological humor involving Bratt’s bloody anal baggie of coke, but the fact that the disgusting moment also serves as Justin and Audrey’s awakening to the hollowness of their self-generated illusions doesn’t change the scene’s stench of comedic desperation. In one of the many moviespeak-inflected verbalizations of its central themes, Swinton recounts a drug-addicted patient’s admission that “I was born addicted to fantasy.” The real delusion, though, is Thumbsucker’s belief that anyone talks, thinks, or behaves like its oh-so-quirky cast of well-meaning crazies.