Innocence is Bliss

Director Mike Mills thinks like a kid for 'Thumbsucker'

In the wake of the mood-altering blockbuster they call Napoleon Dynamite, it's understandable that relative newcomer Mike Mills would be eager to establish his eccentric but sincere Thumbsucker as not just another yearbook photo from Bizarro High.

"It's kinda fun to watch [Napoleon Dynamite]," says Mills over a healthy breakfast in a Block E hotel. "But it's like eating a Twinkie, right? You get a sugar rush and then you have a headache and then it's over. That guy who made the film was, like, 25 or something? That's great, you know, you're 25, that's awesome, and that's an amazing film. But I'm 39. Both my parents are dead--I live in a different world."

C'mon, get happy: Mike Mills on the set of 'Thumbsucker'
Sony Pictures Classics
C'mon, get happy: Mike Mills on the set of 'Thumbsucker'

A SoCal ethnographer with roots in graphic design, Mills got his big break making album covers for the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and Boss Hog. After turning a drunken jam session into a globetrotting stint as bassist in Butter 08 (formed with the members of Cibo Matto), he put his skateboarder background to work on the documentary-style video for Air's "All I Need." Already rubbing elbows with the MTV crowd, Mills joined the ranks of young Hollywood royalty by forming the Director's Bureau with Roman Coppola. With the profits from that company's commercials for Nike and Adidas, Mills made "The Architecture of Reassurance." In a sense, that acclaimed short film is a kind of prequel to Thumbsucker: Both are built on the memory of a long walk through suburbia.

"We lived in one of those old, kind of haunted houses," Mills recalls. "So I'd walk home from school through all the new suburban housing developments and be like, 'Ah--this is it. This is where people are happy, where life makes sense.'"

Whereas other hipster auteurs have pictured the 'burbs in horror-movie terms--as the breeding ground of body snatchers and the target of mysteriously falling jet engines--Mills is eager to believe in better living through conformity.

"It's like a movie set, right?" says Mills of suburbia. "The fact that things match up--that everything is designed to have the same details, the same shapes, the same rooflines, the same basic style--has to me always meant, 'Oh, everyone who lives there kind of knows each other.' It's like a little kid's perspective. In a lot of ways, I'm kind of stuck as a little kid. I have a lot of very naive ways of thinking about the world. Like I'm sitting here talking pretty rationally, but I can become an eight-year-old really fast."

Extended childhood is epidemic in Thumbsucker: Nineteen-year-old Justin (Lou Pucci) can't get over an oral fixation, while his parents Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Audrey (Tilda Swinton) brood like teens and balk at being called Mom and Dad.

"You have many ages in you," says Mills. "I still carry around all these memories and issues and complaints that I had when I was eight or ten or twelve. And my parents, when they were in their 70s, started acting like teenagers; when they were sick, they started acting like children. I find age to be, like, not solid or fixed, but this fluctuating thing."

Thumbsucker's shifts are unnervingly fluid. When Justin visits his equally mutable dentist (Keanu Reeves), who changes from longhaired hippie to crop-chopped go-getter to tired agnostic, the teenager's thin, trembling face resembles a toddler's. Moments later he's zipping Mom into a sexy new dress while she asks, "Do you think he would like this?" (The "he" here isn't Dad, but a hunky TV star on whom Mom has a schoolgirl crush.) Such emotional teething is joined by oddly soothing visions from the static world: a Muzak-drizzling loudspeaker, a street lamp, a four-car garage. Mills seems to be suggesting that the secret of normalcy lies in ordinary objects.

"Super banal things really excite me," he says while dissecting his salmon and poached egg with a surgeon's slow calm. "Like I did a Sonic Youth [record] cover and I just shot inanimate objects--Thurston Moore's sock drawer and stuff like that. In a way, this really dumb, banal stuff can often get you the deepest into someone's personality. I suffer from this whole thing of like, 'Why aren't I more normal, why aren't I happy? Why aren't I more like other people?' I've fucked with myself a lot with that over the years. So a film like Thumbsucker is really talking to people like me who think they should fix themselves. That whole 'normal' thing is just this illusory other side of the fence."

But the illusion is inescapable in Thumbsucker--mostly because its characters don't want to escape it.

"You mean I can't concentrate because I'm hyper?" Justin asks his high school counselor after being told that he may have ADD. In a Donnie Darko, such a line would play as sharp sarcasm, as a cue for our young hero to stand up against medicated groupthink. But in Thumbsucker, Justin eagerly joins the cult of the serotonin-enhanced as gospel-like blasts of Polyphonic Spree suggest a bullhorn loaded with Prozac. Allowing his characters to fuck up, Mills celebrates "normal" insecurities as much as he critiques the quick-fix culture they've spawned. Indeed, listening to the director's wild rant about hotel Charmin makes you wonder whether the architecture of reassurance isn't all it's designed to be.

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