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Thumbsucker
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 10.25.05

Thumbsucker is directed by Mike Mills and stars Lou Taylor Pucci as the teenage protagonist Justin Cobb, with Tilda Swinton as his mom, Audrey, and Vincent D'Onofrio as Mike, his dad. There's also a wacky role for Keanu Reeves, as Perry Lyman, the troubled new age orthodontist who tries to help Justin cure his addiction.

All the critics are saying ho-hum, another teen angst movie and yes, you can see it that way, or rather, it's also that. But there's a whole other subtext here, some of it obvious: the Oedipus phase (boy loves mother hates father or any other rival), some of it not so obvious: reverse Oedipus, boy resists father's effort at castration and persists in his love of the thumb, or something like that. You'll think I'm reading too much into it, but check this out. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that what marks the little boy in the Oedipus complex-which is when the boy loves his mother but has to renounce her for fear that he will be castrated-is something called The Name of the Father, the symbolic evidence of paternal or patriarchal power in our culture. And so, here's what happens in the movie. Justin's dad, who freaks out every time his son sucks his thumb (Justin's 17 by the way), grabs him one time and writes his initials on the son's thumb-MFC. In that scene Justin protests: "why do they have to be your initials?" Later, when Justin meets a girl and they are rolling around on her bed, she sees the letters and asks him what they stand for. He is deeply ashamed and refuses to tell her, inventing instead another story: they stand for [expletive deleted]. And although in the diagesis we're supposed to realize that's not what the initials stand for, one quick thought back to the title of the movie and you have to wonder whether it's really the thumb that's at stake.

This kind of weird double entendre persists throughout the movie: the men, Perry Lyman included, are somehow predatory but also wounded (Mike Cobb quit football after an injury to marry Justin's Mom, while Perry turns out to have some serious self-image issues, and then there's Vince Vaughn as Mr. Geary, the debate team teacher who develops an unusual attachment to Justin), and Justin is, in turn, flirtatious. And, when Justin suspects his mother of having an affair and determines to catch her in the act, he finds out something as radically surprising as it is disgusting, connected again to this strange phallic theme. In fact, we could say that in this movie, Justin's desire for his mom (the more traditional oedipal story), turns, instead, into his identification with her (an identification she encourages by consulting him on dress and seduction)-and the story becomes a reverse Oedipus story about how the boy learns how to be his mother and love his father.

Justin makes the passage to successful masculinity through the cocaine-derived Ritalin, which causes him to excel, especially on the debate team (the drug's link to coke becomes important in the context of the movie's denouement). His triumph in these arenas allows him to see through everyone else, and he becomes a kind of super-man, full of his own victories. It will take a failure for him to develop compassion toward the men in his life-and toward his Mom-which he eventually does. The ending, though surprising, also has its share of tedium, as it becomes necessary to wrap the details up and tie on a bow. But even as you yawn from the explicit story, you will be stumped, shocked, and even delightfully surprised by the covert-but oh so obvious-narrative about other appendages and orifices.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.