Honolulu Weekly met with Mills and Reeves to discuss their bad habits. And an "All thumbs" review by Ragnar Carlson.
by Gary M. Kramer
Mike Mills' screen adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, Thumbsucker, is a coming of age dramedy about Justin (Lou Pucci), a teenager who's trying to kick the titular addiction with the help of his orthodontist, played by Keanu Reeves. Honolulu Weekly met with Mills and Reeves to discuss their bad habits.
What attracted you to Walter Kirn's novel?
Mills: When I first read the book, the thing that stuck out to me was the way Kirn showed family relationships in a really honest way. It was not contrived, nor did he make fun of people. I like that kind of compassion for the characters. It echoed my family, so it quickly became a really cathartic personal project for me. That's what kept me going. After a while, I felt it was my story, my family.
Is Justin's thumbsucking an addiction, an act of regression or a metaphor for innocence?
Mills: It works on many levels. It is an addiction—a way for Justin to deal with his anxiety and fears. It's self-soothing. And when it is taken away, there are replacements, a series of substitutes—Ritalin, pot or sex. On another level, hopefully we can go, "I don't suck my thumb, but I have some secrets," or "I have some things about myself that I would rather put a mask on, and if people knew this secret thing about me, I'd be a little less lovable." I think everyone in the movie is putting on masks. It is exciting to me when they make their shifts.
Keanu, how did you get involved in this movie?
Reeves: I was looking for work, I read the script. It's a great role. I liked [the character] Perry's richness of feeling. I don't know another way to describe it. I believed in it.
Keanu, you are a big name in a small film. How was it to make a small movie?
Reeves: I'm just here to tell the story and do the work. I'm really happy with the film. My hopes and expectations were realized. The humanity and humor and insightfulness and intelligence—that's what I read, and that's what I experienced.
Mills: He never said "I'm special," or "I'm different." Working with Keanu was much like working with electricians or the grip—someone who wants to come to work. The worst thing you can do is pay too much attention to him.
So how do you deal with fear and shame?
Mills: I develop complicated careers where you have to talk to strangers. That's actually a really honest answer.
Reeves: Aaay! Not well.
How long did you suck your thumb?
Mills: I wasn't a thumbsucker. I am sure I did [it], but I wasn't a prolonged thumbsucker. I had all the anxiety. I should have sucked my thumb—it would have made my life easier—but I didn't. In doing this movie, I've had dozens of people come up to me and say, "I suck my thumb."
What were you both like as teenagers?
Mills: We had this crazy, rascally gang…(laughs). I really wanted to live in a whale. It seemed so fucking cool.
Reeves: I always wanted to rob a bank when I was little. It sounded like fun. The plotting, the planning, the danger.
Teenager—that's a big stretch in time, isn't it? In developmental aspects.
Mills: So many different phases.
What was your favorite phase?
Reeves: [laughs, blushes]
Reeves: Of course! Thank God! Thank God, I have something to blush for. Imagine if I didn't. It would be like aaahhhh!
"I have to find something distinctive about myself."
—The opening line of Thumbsucker
Every film about adolesence is subversive of something. Rebel Without a Cause stood in defiance of pathological '50s order, the Breakfast Club undermined the pettiness of cool and American Pie…umm…resisted the tyranny of those who would keep us from screwing our food. Maybe because the essence of teen angst is against-ness, it's nearly impossible to make an authentic movie about teenagers that doesn't subvert something. Thumbsucker is working against something, even if no two viewers are likely to agree on just what.
The film follows 17-year-old thumb jockey Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) on a disjointed, zig-zagging journey from winsome loner to high-octane superachiever to something harder to define. After sucking his way through high school despite a curious nature and an irresistible sweetness of spirit, Justin hits bottom and finds salvation in a diagnosis of ADHD and its Ritalin remedy. From there, he's off to the races—that's at least two double entendre in this paragraph, for those keeping score- and suddenly the former ne'er-do-well is a triumphant success. Sort of.
Thanks to the masterful hand of director Mike Mills, it's difficult to tell how Justin is really doing. It's not just that neither Justin nor his peers nor the adults in his life, who are not the bogeymen of many a teen drama but complex, flawed people who want the best for Justin even when they don't know where to start, can't seem to agree. It's that it's simply hard to tell whether the kid is better off or not.
Even when Justin's newfound glory begins to morph into something else, we're left wondering whether he wasn't truly better off with the medicine. Anyone who's spent time as or around a struggling teenager will find the perplexity of Justin's condition haunting, an effect heightened by the voice of the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, whose presence in nearly every scene seems to foretell a perpetually imminent doom. Thumbsucker is as maddening, at least in part, as it is moving, and for all the right reasons.
Mills coaxes exceptional performances from an already impressive cast. Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton are outstanding as Justin's oblique, quietly desperate suburban parents, and Vince Vaughn's portrayal of a concerned teacher is reminiscent in its sensitivity of his role in Return to Paradise. Keanu Reeves turns in his best work in years as a hippie guru dentist.
None of their work distracts for long, however, from the amazingly gifted Pucci. The 20-year-old turns in a Justin distinct from any of his predecessors (think Igby, or Gilbert Grape) yet familiar enough to bring you right back to That Moment. Not the one where you thought you knew it all. The one after that.
Thumbsucker opens Oct. 7 at Dole Cannery Theatres