Thumbsucker represents Mike Mills’ feature debut, his previous filmmaking experience having encompassed various shorts and promos. Most notable perhaps was his 41-minute documentary Paperboys, a film which captured much of the director’s ethos: a suburban focus, offbeat yet innocently so, and shot through with a certain faux-naïf charm. Indeed, to say that Thumbsucker in some ways resembles an extended short is not a complaint, but rather a complement. This is a feature which fits in perfectly with the Mills oeuvre and as such feels uncompromised and honest; you get the impression – and it’s one aided by his enthusiastic commentary – that Mills has made exactly the film he wished to unhindered by overt commercial concerns or outside interference.
And yet Thumbsucker isn’t really all that different a feature once we get down to the essentials. What we have could be seen as simply another ‘growing pains’ movie focussing on adolescence and the attendant family dramas. Mills, of course, latches onto this in a distinctive – our protagonist, as the title suggests, is a 17-year old who still sucks his thumb (which can be read as metaphorically and/or symbolically as you wish) – but then the basics are still the same. Ultimately, the represents some kind of late-teen journey of discovery, a building of self-confidence, self-esteem and your own personality.
Though Mills is keen to deny any such associations, Thumbsucker would make for a great double-bill with Donnie Darko. In both we find an askew look at the world, a dalliance with fantasy (though Richard Kelly’s film treads this line more thoroughly), teenage medication playing a central role in the narrative, and a representation of US suburbia which comes across as even more alien to a UK audience than would even ordinarily be the case. Furthermore, both have an immediate cult-ish flavour about them, but never at the expense of trying too hard. In the case of Thumbsucker this amounts to the casting of such leftfield performers as Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio, a score by the Polyphonic Spree, and the potentially self-consciously quirky presence of Keanu Reeves as a pseudo-hippy orthodontist. Indeed, in all three cases it could easily have become a case of just too much, yet Mills has such a notable lightness of touch that each and every one becomes a perfect fit. The score in particular works especially well, evoking memories of The Graduate and Harold and Maude, whilst also capturing that faux-naïf vein which runs through so much of Mills’ work. Moreover, the presence of such an overt soundtrack also makes us note the quieter moments, and it is here where Thumbsucker proves most convincing.
Indeed, for all its quirks and left-of-centre ideas, this is a film which places its greatest emphasis at a dramatic level. Put simply, Thumbsucker rings true: despite the various plotlines and character arcs, its true aims are merely to seek out the realities of its situations. It’s a film predicated on the smaller things, much like adolescence in fact, and this is why so much of it pays off. Perhaps Mills’ air of innocence and naïvété isn’t quite the affectation it first appears, but the real thing. Certainly, Thumbsucker is one of the convincing teen pics of recent times.
Gaining a release in the UK courtesy of Sony, Thumbsucker comes to DVD in a healthy condition. In terms of its presentation there is little to fault, with both the visuals and the soundtrack coming across especially well. The former preserves the original aspect of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced of course, and demonstrates no noticeable technical flaws. The colours appear as we should expect, whilst the image comes with the requisite contrast and clarity. As for the soundtrack, here we find a DD5.0 offering which is similarly impressive. It handles both the dialogue and the score by the Spree especially and likewise demonstrates no discernable flaws whenever the two are combined.
In terms of extras, the two major additions are Mills’ feature-length commentary and his 40-minute interview-cum-chat with the novelist Walter Kirn (author of the original Thumbsucker). In both Mills proves himself to be both an enthusiastic and intelligent host. For the commentary he discusses the motivations behind various scenes (whilst also making sure that their ambiguities remain in place) and the production history; particularly interesting are his accounts of the numerous improvisatory workshops he held before filming began. As for the interview, this piece will be particularly welcome to those who’ve yet to catch up with the novel. With book in hand, Mills and Kirn discuss the process of adaptation and generally pay each other numerable compliments, though never quite to the extent that it all becomes a sycophantic indulgence. Thankfully they got more than enough interesting things to say in order to hold our attention for the full 40 minutes.
Elsewhere, the disc also plays host to a behind the scenes documentary which is essentially a fairly standard EPK package, but then does allow some input from others aside from Mills and Kirn. Meanwhile those with DVD-ROM capabilities will also be able to access the director’s blog from the time of the film’s production. And needless to say, Sony have also found room on the DVD to promote a number of their other releases.