Justin Cobb is a typically awkward seventeen-year-old in a small American town; he doesn’t fit in at school, his parents despair of him; you know the score. The twist added by writer and director Mike Mills is that Justin harbours a secret – he still sucks his thumb.
At the showing I went to, people didn’t seem too interested in the significance of this. What I could tell from eavesdropping into the conversations of others was everyone was amazed by Keanu Reeves’ performance. “He really can act”, and “this will give his career a boost, like Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta”, were two of the comments I overheard my fellow cinema-goers making. If these people weren’t walking out of same screen as me I would have assumed that they had been to see a different film. I could see no evidence from Reeves’ performance as Justin’s wacky orthodontist that his amazing wooden powers have weakened in any way.
The son of Pinocchio, however, is far from the worst thing about this coming of age film. Its main weakness is that the relationships between the various members of the Cobb family are barely even sketched out, let alone properly developed. Justin’s younger brother, for instance, at times acts as Justin’s voice of reason, speaking with wisdom far beyond his years. While this provides some much needed light relief, it was not carried out consistently through the film, and therefore seems quite stilted.
Thumbsucker aims to be ultimately uplifting, and The Polyphonic Spree soundtrack is a large part of this. Their music, though, is the musical equivalent of strangers who tell you “Smile, it might never happen”. A greater dose of the late Elliot Smith (three of his tracks feature) might have helped the film to feel more genuine.