Thursday, January 26, 2006


This is a film I've been wanting to see for a while, primarily because it has a soundtrack by The Polyphonic Spree, one of my favorite bands. Now that I've seen the movie, it's clear that that's only one of the good things this film has going for it. It's directed by first time director Mike Mills, who I know from the Air song that's named after him. It's a great song, and his direction lives up to the song.

Narratively, the film is a fairly standard high school teen angst dramedy. The main character's extistential angst about finding his purpose isn't something new, this doesn't necessarily mean it's not good, it's just that the film succeeds because it goes a bit beyond this. The title literally refers to Justin's continuing addiction to sucking his thumb, a hindrance now that he is seventeen years old. However, thematically, the title refers more to clinging to childhood, to the safety of the familiar. The main characters are trapped in their behavior patterns and are unable to grow up.

Justin is someone who's searching for an answer to his problems, a cure all that will resolve his issues and set him on the right path. So, over the course of the film he continually looks for quick fix answers to the issues that are plauging for him. When things go south with Rebecca at the beginning of the film, he blames it on his thumbsucking, and as a result looks to Barry for some answers. The hypnosis succeeds in getting rid of this problem, but he soon finds himself even more troubled, and finds another solution in the ADHD medication.

The film takes an interesting position on prescription drugs. The initial events surrounding them would suggest that they are a cure all, Justin is motivated and takes control of his life, rising to the top of the debate team, however, in taking the drugs he loses sight of the essential self that he is trying to seek. The drugs transform him into someone else and as time passes, he begins to realize that that indentity is a charade that he cannot maintain forever. Because they are a drug, the same as any illegal one, they will eventually affect the way he thinks and acts, so that the qualities that at first seemed desirable, the increased competitiveness and leadership drive, soon begin to hurt him in his interactions with people.

When he stops taking the drugs, Justin seems to slide off the path, and by the end he recognizes that ultimately he just has to stand up for himself, he can't be scared like he was at the beginning of the film. The drugs were a necessary step along his journey, but they weren't the ultimate destination.

The entire film is about this personal evolution, abandoning childhood and maturing into more fulfilled people. Justin's arc isn't the only one where this happens. His mother clearly has the same feelings of inadaquecy and self doubt. At the beginning of the film she looks to this fantasy figure, Matt Schram, as an escape from the monotony of her everyday life. Dissatisfied with the state of her marriage and family she seeks this fantasy escape into the glamourous world of a star.

As the film progresses, she sees that his life isn't particularly glamourous, he's got problems as well, she doesn't need him, it's ultimately he who needs her. I thought one of the best scenes in the film was the conversation between Matt and Justin, where Justin gets to see a new side of his mother. He always saw her as an authority figure, but through the conversation with Matt he understands that she's human too, she's scared and flawed, and when he insults her aspirations it really hurts.

Throughout the film there's a weird semi-incestuous vibe in the relationship between these two. It's most apparent in the scene where she's trying on dresses and is looking to Justin to see if she's hot enough to impress Matt. This puts him in a very weird position. When he tries to stop her from going with Matt, there's this sense that he's almost jealous that she would desire anything beyond what they have. This vibe is increased during the scenes that intercut Justin's sexual exploration with Rebecca with scenes of him and Audrey together, as well as Audrey wondering whether Justin has ever had sex.

This all ties in with the title and the essential theme of the film which is about Justin and Audrey separating so that they can both grow. Keanu talks about how the thumb is the substitute for the mother's breast, so Justin at first rejects the way he'd been brought up, goes off on his journey through drugs and at the end of the film returns to the love that she gave him.

So, it becomes a metaphor about creating your own identity. Justin has to throw off the ties to his childhood, try things on his own, find himself and then he can return to the family unit. As for Audrey, she too has to give up Justin, but she recognizes that it's what she has to do so that he can grow.

Barry himself sums up the theme of the film in the speech he gives at the end. The basic idea is that everyone's looking for a cure for their problems, but this very notion is a fantasy because we'll always have problems, rather than trying to become a perfect person, you just have to be comfortable with who you are. So, whereas once Justin was ashamed of his thumbsucking and saw it as a major hindrance, when he's on the plane, he's not shamed by himself, instead he gets over it and speaks to the girl next to him. So, don't try to be something you aren't, your flaws are a part of you. That seems to be the film's basic message.

The film had a lot of other strong stuff I didn't mention. The score was fantastic, though more underplayed than you would expect from the Spree. But it definitely fit with the tone of the film and I loved the final moments with "Move Away and Shine." I think this was Keanu's best performance in a long time, largely because he was playing the Keanu that everyone imagines him really being like, and it was nice to see Vince Vaughn outside of the persona that he's been using in every role for a while now.

The film was well shot, and though I think the dream sequences with the purple/pink stage were a bit cheesy, all the the rest worked well. I loved the way the narrative had a lot of episodic elements without compromising the strong throughline. Scenes that could have felt like tangents, such as the hotel room bit, worked because they were essential to the characters and were funny in their own right. I guess a lot of that is that each of the characters felt fully developed even if they didn't get much screentime. So, Mike could have been a stock disinterested dad, but you got a whole sense of history and emotion from him without knowing all the specifics. Though in that case the similarities to Unbreakable may have helped a bit. One of the little things I really liked was how Audrey mentioned that she didn't fall in love with him until he stopped playing, and he says that he stopped playing to be with her, yet neither of them could quite make the connection and convey these deep feelings they had for each other. Perhaps they will in the time following the film.

So, it's a really successful film that's thoroughly enjoyable, and also brings to the fore a lot of interesting issues. Over the course of Justin's journey, he tries to medicate a problem when it ultimately turns out there was no problem, it's just the difficulties that everyone faces. I think the most important thing to understanding the film is the line Justin reads out of the rehab book which is don't judge your interior based on everyone else's exterior. Everyone thinks they have it worse than they do, and you just need some perspective to move beyond that.


Anonymous said...

You seemed to have read more into the son-mother relationship than I did. I found the son-father relationship much more pivotal, but that could have been just due to my personal experience, which has an affect on how one reads a film.

Anyhow, it's a really, really good film with a good soundtrack. If you haven't listened to much of Elliott Smith before, I recommend him. His music fits perfectly for the film. Smith completed several strong albums before dying in unknown circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I think that you are right about the majority of the film, but I believe that the pink/purple dream backround is a touch that says something about the characters, thier instability, thier weaknesess. I noticed that there is a lot of pink through-out the film. Pink is a scared color, a frightened, weak, childs color, and it helps portray the idea of having to change from child to adult. Aging seems to be a problem with the characters, with the father being afraid to age, and the mother, and then, of course, Justin's thumbsucking. I must also state that I think that the pink color is a bit of a joke, the color of a thumb.

I haven't heard the sound track, or heard any of Smith's work. I plan to change this shortly.