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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
"Justin, are you ready to let go of your thumb?"
DVD ReviewThere's a magical span of years, when you're growing up, that you believe adults, and especially your parents, have all the answers. It's a little scary to get older and figure out that they don't, that no one does. I'm not speaking from experience, but I imagine the most terrifying thing about being a parent is knowing this, and knowing you have to somehow hide that fact from a little person who depends on you for everything. These insecurities, on both sides of the generation gap, are the heart of writer/director Mike Mills' Thumbsucker, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Walter Kirn.
Justin (Lou Pucci) has an unfortunate habit, one that falls somewhere below compulsive public masturbation on the scale of socially acceptable behaviors—he's 17, and he still sucks his thumb, an infantile act of self-soothing that causes him great shame. His parents, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Audrey (Tilda Swinton), aren't much better at acting like adults—they insist Justin and his younger brother (Chase Offerle) call them by their first names, lest they feel too old, and Audrey spends her free time daydreaming about winning a contest for a date with the star (Benjamin Bratt) of a TV cop show.
Justin wants to change his life. Spiritual guidance from his enlightened dentist (Keanu Reeves), who tells him to call on his power animal whenever he feels the urge to sneak a secret suck, doesn't work (maybe because Justin's idea of a power animal is a fawn), but Ritalin proves to be just the ticket. Suddenly, the kid who was too nervous to speak up in debate team practice is his coach's (Vince Vaughn) star speaker, headed to the state finals. But is Justin living better through chemistry, really? Is he even himself on the drug, or is he trying to fix not a problem, but his personality?
Thumbsucker is one of those movies with a deep, profound Life Lesson at its core—basically, that everyone is screwed up in some way, and sometimes, maybe it's better to accept your faults than to spend your entire life making yourself miserable trying to fix them. Certainly all of the characters suffer under the weight of expectation. Mike hates to see his son sucking his thumb, but secretly desires the soothing simplicity it represents. Audrey is a mom, but wishes she had all the responsibility of a teenager. Justin flirts with a fellow debater, Rebecca (Kelli Garner) who pretends to be an environmental activist because it's important to her parents; she'd be happier sneaking pot in her room. Even Justin's little brother feels pressured. "You ever think that you're so busy being weird, that I have to step up and be normal?" he asks.
Not everything works—the film is either too funny or too serious, depending on your take—but it's got a point, at least, and goes about communicating it in an interesting way (certainly far better than the similarly themed, numbingly tedious, and equally poorly titled The Chumscrubber, which incidentally also features Pucci). Mike Mills proves himself to be a fine writer and a very promising director—sure, the big name actors are all great, but he makes sure their characters all fit into the same film, and the visuals and symbols, even if they never quite land on profundity, never struck me as pretentious.
Thumbsucker's biggest problem, then, is likely its basic concept, but if you can get past the gooey feelings churned up by what it's about, and focus on what it's about, in a universal sense, you'll find it has something worthwhile to offer.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Joaquin Baca-Asay's widescreen cinematography translates nicely to DVD in this mostly excellent anamorphic transfer. Colors are rich and natural, and the image shows good detail. If you've got an eye for edge enhancement, you'll likely spot your share of it—the problem popped up more than once—but otherwise, this is a good presentation of a low-budget film that doesn't look like one.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Another DD 5.0 track from Sony. The mix does what it needs to do, and that's about all you can ask. Dialogue sounds crystal clear and natural coming from the center channel, while the catchy soundtrack from Elliot Smith and The Polyphonic Spree fills out into the front mains and surround channels.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring 2046, Junebug, Saint Ralph, Breakfast on Pluto, London, The Tenants, The Memory of a Killer
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Mike Mills
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: Thumbsucker doesn't have a lot of features, but it has the best kind of features—all are interesting and relevant, and they shine new light on the film, revealing the motivations behind it and the themes that drive it.
Director Mike Mills is soft-spoken but engaging on his commentary track, one of the better ones I've heard lately. He jumps from subject to subject, discussing what drew him to the film, the adaptation process, working with the actors and technical details.
A Behind-the-Scenes Documentary (21m:11s) offers a nice glimpse at the production, and the thought that went into crafting the characters and their onscreen relationships. In-between footage of different scenes being filmed, the actors and Mills discuss how they put these characters together, a process that involved a few weeks of rehearsal. Free from promotional spin and excessive film clips, this is an excellent piece that could have gone on quite a bit longer.
Mills and novelist Walter Kirn have a Conversation (41m:31s) during which they discuss their working relationship and the major themes of both the novel and the film (which Kirn based on his own life and family). It's a pretty interesting discussion, if a little gooey at times (i.e. when Mills reads some favorite passages from the book). But if you didn't get the movie and want to know what the filmmaker intended, this is the place to find out. They also discuss the reasons for what is a rather unfortunate title. At one point, Mills comments that he encountered reluctance, even mild repulsion, from potential financers while trying to get the movie made, primarily because of the title. Yes. Kirn: "You have to look pretty far a field these days to find a behavior we're uncomfortable with... This is a genuinely uncomfortable behavior, and I think it immediately brings out that side of everyone which they want to hide." He then wins fans by comparing the habit to bondage and big manly men sucking on longneck beer bottles (another form of self-soothing behavior, you see).
For those with DVD-ROM drives, the disc includes the director's blog entries, written during the film's production. As always, these kinds of extras can't be accessed on a Mac, so I'll just have to imagine how truly awesome they are. Ooooh. Aaaah.
The teaser and theatrical trailers have been included on nearly every Sony disc I've reviewed in the last three months, but you won't find them included here. Instead, there are clips for 2046, Junebug, Saint Ralph, Breakfast on Pluto, London, The Tenants, and The Memory of a Killer.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA quirky look at the relationships between parents and their kids and kids and parents who act like kids, Thumbsucker doesn't quite attain its lofty goals, but it doesn't feel like it's overreaching, either. A fine, measured debut from director Mike Mills, and a great DVD from Sony.
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