Thumbsucker is about Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), who at 17 years-old, still sucks his thumb. His thumb-sucking has led to problems with friends at high school and at home with his family. The story follows Justin through his various attempts at trying cure himself of his thumb-sucking.
- Directed by: Mike Mills
- Screenplay by: Mike Mills
- Based on the Novel by: Walter Kirn
- Starring: Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, Kelli Garner, Benjamin Bratt
- Genre: Drama, Comedy
- Rated: R
- Official site
- Rotten Tomatoes: 71% Audience – 74% Critics
- Wikipedia: (Film) (Novel)
- Watch the Movie: Rent Online or Buy the DVD
- Read the Novel: eBook or Paperback
I first saw Thumbsucker on DVD in 2015, having known nothing about it beforehand. I had never heard of the film until I saw it mentioned on an online forum listing movies involving social anxiety. Was that forum post correct? Is Thumbsucker about social anxiety disorder? Let’s take a look at the film and find out.
Psychoanalysis: Warning! Full SPOILERS Ahead!
In debate class, Justin is called on by his teacher, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn) to counter the argument of Rebecca (Kelli Garner), a girl Justin has a crush on. Justin says he agrees with everything Rebecca said, and Mr. Geary responds with his class motto:
Speaking confidently wins minds.
A common trait of people with social anxiety is being afraid to voice an opinion in public, for the fear that it might offend someone who thinks differently, which will then make them not like us.
As a result of his constant thumb-sucking, Justin has dental problems and goes to see his New Age hippie-like orthodontist, Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves). Perry talks to Justin about the subconscious mind and involuntary behaviors.
All of us carry a certain weight. A weight we don’t recognize… It makes us do things. Things we don’t like to admit.
That “weight” can be thumb-sucking or social anxiety (or countless other things). For most of my life, I didn’t know what social anxiety was, and I didn’t recognize the things it made me do, like talking low and avoiding eye contact. I was ashamed to let others hear me talk awkwardly or see me blush and sweat, so I avoided any social interactions that would cause those symptoms.
Justin’s little brother Joel (Chase Offerle) is more socially confident and advanced than him.
You never even had a girlfriend… You haven’t even kissed one.
I’ve sometimes felt jealous of people younger than me, my own siblings included, who could make talking seem so easy. Like social confidence came naturally to them.
Justin’s father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) is the toughest critic of his thumb-sucking, making Justin feel ashamed and embarrassed, calling it “pathetic”.
You should stop.
I want to. I’m trying… Don’t you think I want to?
Some people just don’t understand social anxiety. They think it’s a personal choice to be shy. They don’t understand how badly we want to break free of our social anxiety. They don’t realize how difficult it is for us to do so.
Mike tries to force Justin to stop sucking his thumb by writing his own initials (MFC) on Justin’s thumb with a permanent marker, to be a constant reminder.
This doesn’t work, however. You can’t force someone to give up their addiction, be it thumb-sucking, alcohol, drugs, or social anxiety. Forcing someone into exposure therapy or cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety won’t work unless we are ready and willing to work with the treatments. For me, that time didn’t come until a couple of years after college. For you, it may come sooner or later.
Justin starts a relationship with Rebecca, but she senses that he’s not telling her something. She asks about the “MFC” on his thumb, but he’s too embarrassed to tell her the truth about his thumb-sucking. Rebecca dumps him until he is “ready to be open.”
I’ve missed out on potential relationships in the past because of my social anxiety. I’ve been afraid to be open and honest with others, especially women, for fear they might not like the real me.
On his next visit to the orthodontist, Perry realizes what’s causing Justin’s dental problems.
It’s time to confront the underlying issue.
Perry hypnotizes Justin and gives him a power animal to call on when he wants to suck his thumb. Then Perry tells Justin that from now on, his thumb will taste like Echinacea.
You don’t need your thumb, and your thumb doesn’t need you.
I’ve never been hypnotized, though I would be interested in trying it. However, I don’t think tricking someone into stopping their habit is really addressing the underlying issue. Which in the case of social anxiety, is changing our negative thought patterns about ourselves and others.
Perry’s hypnosis works, as far as getting Justin to stop sucking his thumb. The thumb tastes horrible, so Justin can’t bear to suck it anymore. But all of Justin’s other problems in life remain. He gets nervous and can’t speak in debate class. He used to suck his thumb to cope with the stress in situations like that, but now he has no way to deal with his problems.
Justin calls Perry for help.
I didn’t think it would be like this. Can you put it back? Please I really feel crazy.
Perry says to stick with it, but Justin doesn’t have the patience. Feeling betrayed, Justin takes revenge on Perry by causing him to crash his bike during a race.
He just pretended to be my friend… He said he’d help me, and then he just… fucked me up.
Justin gets in trouble after the bike incident, and he visits the school principal with his parents and Mr. Geary.
Have you ever suspected that you were different from other teenagers? Not as patient… Can’t finish what you started… Terrified of being left alone, but angry when you feel crowded?
The principal says Justin has classic ADHD, and she wants to immediately put him on a stimulant drug treatment. Justin’s dad is hesitant.
If this is all just coming down to medication, look, I think that my son can handle this if he puts his mind to it.
Mr. Geary agrees that Justin exhibits many of the symptoms of ADHD, but Justin’s mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is also hesitant.
These symptoms they have here… They’re pretty vague… Ignores information, makes mistakes, seems restless, avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in work that requires sustained mental effort.
When I first went to my doctor about social anxiety, he instantly wrote me a prescription for antidepressants without discussing alternative options or considering if prescription drugs were really necessary at all.
The principal, Mr. Geary, Audrey, and Mike finally ask what Justin thinks about the ADHD, and he smiles, relieved.
So my problems are just because I’m hyper.
Justin is enthusiastic and happy to try the medication.
I felt the same way when I first started taking antidepressants. I thought they would be the cure to my social anxiety.
It says I’ll have more confidence and self control… I’ll have better relationships.
It just all sounds too easy to me, you know, take a pill, change.
What if this is what is right? What if the trouble was all along, I just can’t concentrate? I can’t focus on anything.
It just still seems too easy.
Haven’t you ever wanted to change?
Yes, I have. But it’s not that simple.
Maybe it is.
In my experience, Mike’s concerns were correct. The cure for my social anxiety wasn’t so simple as taking antidepressants, as much as I, like Justin, wished it was.
Audrey is nervous and worried about her son taking Ritalin, but Justin happily pops his first pill like it’s nothing.
Like Justin, I was happy to start taking medication. Though, like Audrey, I was nervous and worried when I read the long list of side effects that came with my Zoloft prescription.
Justin gets instant results his first day on Ritalin . He’s so focused that he reads Moby Dick in one sitting. Justin tells the good news to his little brother.
I changed… I mean it works. It really works.
Yeah. I never thought that I would feel so clear.
I can’t say I saw the same instant results as Justin, albeit we were on different types of medication. For me, it took several months and an increase in dosage before I started noticing any effects.
In addition to the focus, Justin has increased confidence while taking the medication.
I feel like me. I never really did before.
I know what Justin means. When I feel social anxiety with people, I don’t feel like myself. I would only feel like me in private, when I wasn’t in social situations.
Mr. Geary notices Justin’s increased confidence in class and invites him to join the debate team. Justin sees instant success, winning all of his debates, and becomes the star of the team. Even Audrey is impressed with the results.
I’ve never seen you like that before… You grew up.
These are the kinds of results I was hoping to see when I took antidepressants for social anxiety, but it didn’t happen for me. The meds helped alleviate some of the physical symptoms like increased heart rate and blushing, but they didn’t change my personality or increase my confidence.
Justin also has more confidence with the girls on his debate team. On a trip, they get drunk together the night before the debate. They get in trouble with the hotel, but Justin still wins his debate the next day. Mr. Geary begins to sense that he has helped create a monster, though Justin insists he feels good.
Why do you feel good?
Because I’m winning.
What about learning?
I’m learning how to win.
Justin enjoys his debate team success, but he still has problems. He has strained relationships with each of his parents, and he still wants to be with Rebecca, who is now hanging out with the stoners. In a college application essay, Justin blames his parents for his problems in life.
I’ve had to overcome unusual obstacles. Both my parents suffer from mental illness. This has made my life difficult, but also given me a valuable perspective.
In the past, I similarly blamed my parents for my social anxiety. I believed that they should have done something earlier in my life to start treating my social anxiety. But it isn’t fair for me to blame them, or anyone else.
Audrey and Mike both struggle with how to raise Justin and how to communicate with him. They even insist that Justin and Joel call them by their first names, rather than “mom” and “dad”, so they won’t feel as old.
How can I be a parent when I’m the kid?
I used to view my parents as omniscient beings. I’d ask my dad countless questions about the world, and I always expected him to have the answer. I took whatever he said as absolute. Then when I got older, I realized my father didn’t know everything, and some of the things he taught me in the past were wrong. I started to blame my parents for ruining me when I was younger by letting my social anxiety develop. They should have done this… shouldn’t have done that… But now, I’m almost as old as my parents were when they had me, and I realize that becoming a parent doesn’t suddenly make you a perfect human and all-knowing being. My mother and father are each just a person, like me, trying to figure out this thing called life. They didn’t know everything they were doing when they raised me— what was right or wrong. But they were trying their best, as I am now, and that’s really all anybody can do.
Out at a store, Justin sees Perry, who is now clean shaven and dressed preppy-like. Justin starts to apologize, but Perry thanks him.
I was lost in a cloud of hippie psychobabble. You helped bring me back down to earth. I’ve rewritten my whole philosophy of life. I found new answers to my questions. There’s no try, there’s only do.
Perry’s character shows: 1) That people can and do change, and 2) That nobody ever has all the answers to life. I’ve tried many different things to overcome my social anxiety with varying degrees of success. I don’t think there’s one way to treat it, just as there’s no one way to live life. Antidepressants didn’t work for me, but they may work for others. That doesn’t mean one of us is right and one is wrong, or one of us is better or worse.
Before a debate, an opponent sees Justin take his Ritalin in the bathroom and says that it’s “just speed… three molecules different than cocaine.” Justin says a doctor gave it to him.
Teachers are overmedicating today’s kids.
Justin gets defensive, and the debater calls him a “speed freak.” During the following debate, Justin is rattled and can’t speak or think clearly. He babbles incomprehensibly and loses a debate for the first time since he started taking Ritalin.
It’s in my professional opinion that you’ve become a monster.
Justin is upset over the debate loss. He realizes he’s just been taking drugs, and he doesn’t like the person they have turned him into. He quits the debate team and decides to stop taking his medication.
I stopped taking my pills… They’re just speed. They’re just three molecules different than cocaine.
You know it’s not good for you to quit cold-turkey—
But I can.
I didn’t have a rock-bottom moment like Justin that made me stop taking antidepressants. I just realized after a year or two, that they weren’t the answer to my social anxiety, so I slowly weened off them and sought more natural methods of treatment.
Meanwhile, through all of this drama, Justin has never once sucked his thumb. Yet he has all the same problems in life as before. Problems with his mother, his father, his school, and Rebecca. Meaning that thumb-sucking was never the real issue. His problems ran deeper than that.
I had a similar realization when taking antidepressants. They helped me to stop feeling the physical symptoms of social anxiety, but I was still just as shy as before. I realized social anxiety runs deeper than physical symptoms or chemical imbalances in the brain. I had to address the underlying issues, like the way I thought, through cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation.
Justin is frustrated that his ex-jock father Mike won’t help with his problems in life.
Why can’t you ever tell me anything about how you deal with things?
Mike doesn’t know what to say to Justin because he has problems of his own that he is struggling to deal with. Just because Mike is a parent, that doesn’t mean he has all the answers to life.
Justin seeks a different path for his next step in treatment and goes to Rebecca and her stoner friends to try smoking pot.
Did you ever feel like you really wanted to change?
I never really tried marijuana to treat my social anxiety, mostly because I had no friends to offer it to me, and I was too shy to ask anyone to sell me some.
The weed seems to help Justin at first, as far as his relationship with Rebecca. They start to have sex, but Rebecca insists they keep their relationship private, and she makes Justin wear a blindfold during sex. Justin asks why, and Rebecca reveals it was just an experiment. She was using him to get sexual experience. Justin is upset, and they break up, but he continues to smoke pot by himself.
Meanwhile, Justin’s relationship with his parents has worsened. He suspects Audrey is having an affair with a celebrity actor at the rehab center she works at.
She just pretends to like us… The only way somebody like me could get her attention is by being her kid.
Justin exhibits low self-esteem and projects false beliefs on his mother, two behaviors that are emblematic of social anxiety disorder. Audrey is more confident, like Justin’s younger brother Joel. So Justin wrongly believes that Audrey doesn’t like him as much.
With social anxiety we have low self-esteem about ourselves and think other people want nothing to do with us, so we avoid them, which only makes our social anxiety worse.
Justin goes to the rehab center to try to catch Audrey in the act. There, Justin meets the famous actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), whom he suspects his mother is having an affair with. Matt reveals the truth. He and Audrey aren’t having an affair. She’s just been helping him with his drug addiction.
We’re all addicted to something. Maybe an idea of ourselves. Our lives. Maybe some idea of success or failure… We don’t like to admit it, but we’re all just scared little animals.
I think Matt’s words ring true. Everyone has some kind of personal disorder, some worse than others. Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, overeating, under-eating, guilt, shame, anger, narcissism, anxiety, depression, or a million other things. Social anxiety is just one of many disorders. We view socially confident people as ideal, yet just because they don’t have social anxiety, that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from something else in their lives.
Justin’s thoughts about his mother are proved wrong when we hear her talking to Matt at the rehab center about how it feels for her to be a parent.
You’re supposed to have all the answers, and you don’t have one.
This conveys my previous point about parents, which is a major theme of the film. Audrey loves Justin but she has trouble connecting to him. Justin doesn’t see that. He just sees his mother’s confident personality and assumes she’s fine.
I’ve had similar difficulty communicating with my family members because of social anxiety. It’s difficult for me to talk to them, but it’s also difficult for them to figure out how to get through to me.
Justin then goes to his brother to commiserate about how he thought their parents were going to break up, but Joel blows it off.
Don’t you ever think about this stuff? Doesn’t it ever freak you out?
Everything freaks you out.
You don’t even care… You have it so easy, Joel.
Like you’re the only one with problems. You ever think that you’re so busy being weird that I have to step up and be normal?
Whether we have social anxiety, thumb-sucking, or something else, we tend to overemphasize our own problems, and we fail to recognize that everyone else has their own problems of equal magnitude to them. So yeah, we might have social anxiety, and be jealous of the extroverts with all the friends, but we don’t know what’s really going on in their inner lives. They may be suffering from different problems, but problems that are just as significant to them as our own.
Justin gets accepted to NYU, his dream college, and he decides to go. His parents are happy for him, but at the same time, they are sad that they will miss him.
Justin returns to Perry for a dental check-up before he leaves for New York. Perry has changed yet again. He looks like a mess, with long hair, and smokes cigarettes in the examination room. Justin asks what happened to him.
I guess I stopped trying to be anything. I accepted myself and all of my human disorders. You might want to do the same.
The first step in overcoming any type of disorder, including social anxiety, is to accept it.
Justin tells Perry about his plans to go to New York and pursue his dream to be a TV news reporter. Perry says it could be good, but…
Then again, you’ll have to deal with a lot of fear.
Perry apologizes to Justin for trying to hypnotize him earlier.
I’ve been reading up on it. Medically… Psychologically… There’s nothing really wrong with thumb-sucking.
I don’t think I can agree with that.
No, really, look. Justin, there is nothing wrong with you.
It felt like everything was wrong with me.
That’s because we all want to be problem-less. To fix ourselves. We look for some magic solution to make us all better, but none of us really know what we’re doing. And why is that so bad? That’s all we humans can do. Guess. Try. Hope. But Justin, just pray you don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got the answer. Because that’s bullshit. The trick is living without an answer… I think… I think.
Read Perry’s final monolog again, because it’s the key to the entire film. The key to life, really. If we have social anxiety, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with us. It doesn’t mean that we are inherently flawed. It simply means that we are human, with individual problems like everyone else. That doesn’t mean we are doomed to suffer through social anxiety for the rest of our lives. What Perry’s saying is we need to accept that social anxiety is a part of us, and that’s okay. Once we realize and accept that, we can begin to find ways to overcome our social anxiety. But like Perry said, there is no magic solution. Overcoming social anxiety is a constant practice that takes time and personal effort… But it can be done.
Justin leaves for New York, and on the airplane, he sucks his thumb again. A cute girl sitting beside him notices, but for the first time, Justin isn’t ashamed about his thumb-sucking.
GIRL ON PLANE
Justin accepts himself as he is, and the girl accepts him as he is. She’s not grossed out or repulsed by his thumb-sucking. Likewise, social anxiety isn’t something we should be ashamed and embarrassed about. It’s okay and often helpful to be open and honest about it. Tell others that we experience some social anxiety, but are working on overcoming it. They might feel compassion rather than ridicule, and try to help meet us halfway.
In the final scene of the film, Justin runs through the streets of New York City. After he has finally accepted himself, his thumb-sucking, and all of his human imperfections, he feels free.
I never wanted to let anyone know I was shy, even though it was obvious. When I found out I had social anxiety disorder, I didn’t want anyone else to know. When I started taking antidepressants, I never told anyone. I hoped to treat and cure my social anxiety in secret, so then I could be normal and no one would ever know. But during that time on medication, I never saw any progress in overcoming my social anxiety. It wasn’t until I went through cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation, and I accepted myself and my social anxiety, that I started to make progress in overcoming it. Rather than trying to hide my social anxiety, I embraced it. I talked openly and honestly about my social anxiety by writing things such as this, in hopes to help both myself and others like me.
Thumbsucker isn’t specifically about social anxiety disorder, but the journey Justin goes through in treating his thumb-sucking and ADHD parallels a similar journey I went on in treating my social anxiety. The lessons Justin learns are universal. The ultimate message of the film is that everybody has their own addiction or disorder, whether it be drugs, alcohol, thumb-sucking, or social anxiety. There is no normal. And there is no magic cure. That doesn’t mean we have to suck our thumbs for the rest of our lives, or continue to abuse drugs and alcohol, or remain mired in social anxiety. If we accept our addiction and/or disorder and are open about it, then we can begin to cope with it… I think… I think.
Thumbsucker as a film: 9/10
Thumbsucker as a portrayal of social anxiety Thumbsucker’s message for social anxiety: 10/10
More on Thumbsucker:
- Part 2: Reviewing the Reviewers
- Part 3: Behind the Scenes
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