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Justin (Lou Pucci) is 17 and still sucks his thumb. Though it upsets his parents (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio) and threatens his prospects with his debate team crush (Kelli Garner), he can't stop sucking until his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) hypnotizes him. But Justin still doesn't feel "normal." He experiments with Ritalin, pot and sex but they only provide temporary solutions. Looking for guidance from his debate team coach (Vince Vaughn) and even a TV star (Benjamin Bratt), Justin begins to wonder if there is such a thing as "normal." Written and directed by Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn.


What inspired me to make Thumbsucker? More than anything my family did: All the crazy things we’ve done to each other, how confusing love is, what a trap it is when kids feel they have to act like adults, and how at any age we are never as “grown up” as we pretend to be. I was lucky to find all these issues in Walter Kirn’s book Thumbsucker, which I was even luckier to get to adapt since I hadn’t done that before. I first thought I liked the book because the people seemed so real, you could just smell that these things really happened. Walter’s characters were a relief to me because they’re sympathetically flawed, and fuck—the book is just really funny.

It took months of adapting before I realized the obvious, “Wait a minute—this is my family!” That’s me and that’s my mom and, well, that’s not my dad but we end up in the same emotional place. Walter said things about his family that were true for mine but I didn’t know how to say. Or maybe he just said it in such a funny and forgiving way that it made it okay for me to say out loud. Why is it the hardest for kids and parents to say (and maybe to hear), “Hey, you’re all right”? Is it that they love each other so much they get crazy vulnerable and treat each other like strangers or even enemies? I find all that endlessly fascinating, important, political, and freeing when you can play with it, be mischievous and hopeful with it the way Walter does. So a big part of my inspiration was just me trying to figure out my family, and yeah, I hoped this film would make people think about their families, how hard we can be on ourselves, how we think we should be some perfect thing that doesn’t even exist, and how we sometimes rather be anything but ourselves.

When every film distributor in America and Europe says “interesting but no” to the project, you do tend to feel like you’re burdening the world with a warped vision that no one wants to see. Then during spasms of self righteous “you don’t get it, stupid” anger-revenge and inspiration I’d remember how Walter’s book made pain and confusion funny and approachable, and I thought, if this does that for someone, or even has the potential to, then all this might lead to something positive. I might make a film half as good as Harold and Maude, and maybe provide a hit of natural Xanax for all of us anxiety-ridden creatures. Saying this now makes me feel pretty embarrassed and preachy, like, what do I know about families, or tolerating vulnerability, or being me? But that was my inspiration in all its hubris—to do something like Hal Ashby, this feeling in all his films that doesn’t make the world nice and easy, but does say, “It’s gonna be okay” and “Aren’t we all ridiculous” and “You’re only here for a little while so go for it even if you don’t know how to. Especially if you don’t know how to, ’cause really no one knows what they’re doing.”