When I step back and think about Thumbsucker, I’m inclined to agree with the bulk of the reviews I read that it’s a fairly good token of the indie, troubled teen, coming of age dramedy type. But the problem may be precisely that there are so many movies of that type that this one never sufficiently distinguishes itself from the rest.
The protagonist is a seventeen year old suburban boy, kind of a loner type, with an interest in girls (well, certainly one in particular) but little or no dating experience, not so hot grades, and iffy relationships with his family (parents and a younger brother).
The title comes from the fact that he’s never gotten over his habit of sucking his thumb. Even at seventeen, when he’s alone in his room at home, or when he ducks into a bathroom stall at school, he’ll absent-mindedly suck on his thumb to calm himself.
Not a whole lot is really done with that, though. I’m sure it serves its purpose in showing he’s different or being a symbol of this or that, but when he does it he just looks silly, and then he’s more or less cured of it fairly early in the movie. Plus, it’s not believable in the first place that a teenage boy would not have figured out by now that he can more productively masturbate in those same times and places.
As events play out, we see him try out various ways of dealing with his issues and trying to be more satisfied with himself, from Ritalin to pot, from getting up the nerve to pursue the girl he’s interested in to being more dedicated and ambitious about school (especially the debate team) and aiming high in his college applications. It’s all at least a little interesting, there are some laughs, and there are some moments that have a little zing emotionally. Probably the one of that last type that hit home most for me is a line uttered by his girlfriend—reluctantly, since she knows it’s a hurtful thing to say—in reference to her desire to keep their involvement a casual fling.
Everything he tries does him some good, or at least is worth the experience to try, but nothing is a cure-all. What is presumably intended to be the message of the movie is spoken by his idiosyncratic dentist Keanu Reeves, namely that a lot of the things we try to “fix” because they differ from the norm—or we think they do—really aren’t so bad, and we’d be better off accepting them.
If he sucks his thumb occasionally, so what? He’s not hurting anyone, and when it’s not serving any purpose for him it’ll fade away as a habit on its own. There’s no need to regard it as a problem and seek a solution.
Though none of the main characters are hugely fascinating or memorable, one thing I appreciate about the movie is that they’re all fleshed out enough to be at least somewhat interesting, and to be distinct individuals rather than just running together. Each is developed beyond being a two-dimensional figure playing a role in the life of the protagonist.
The parents have their problems and limitations and unrealized dreams, the girlfriend has her issues, the dentist (who’s mostly played for humor) is growing in his own way, the teacher who serves as the debate coach has plenty going on with him psychologically as he moves back and forth between authority figure and buddy with his students. The development of the little brother character is more perfunctory, though even he gets a scene with a little more emotional weight late in the movie.
So Thumbsucker has plenty of at least pretty good elements, but somehow it didn’t have the intangibles of a film like, say, Gretchen for me. It’s a nice little film I suppose, but it just didn’t speak to me more than slightly.