Mike Mills is 39 years old. At 18 he moved cross-county, from Santa Barbara, California to New York City, New York, where he attended The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He was a bad student, but he could draw. Art school led to an internship with influential design company M & Co. He skateboarded and listened to punk music. A friend worked at X-Large, the clothing company made famous by the Beastie Boys in the early ’90s. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon had come aboard and was opening X-Girl in New York, a recommendation was offered, and Mills designed the store. Then he designed the cover art for Washing Machine.
He made friends like Spike Jonze and Jonze’s future ex-wife, Sofia Coppola. He did more cover art, for Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Cibo Matto. He directed a video for Frank Black, did the same later for Yoko Ono, Air and Moby. He made a couple of documentaries. He scored commercial gigs with Volkswagen, Nike and the Gap. He created a clothing label, Humans, and designed scarves for Marc Jacobs. He belongs to the Directors Guild, a collective featuring Coppola and her brother Roman, among others.
This year his feature film debut, Thumbsucker, caused a sensation at Sundance, which carried through nine months of buzz to the Toronto film festival last month and is landing in Halifax this week. Another film had a similar trajectory from Sundance to Halifax, Me and You and Everyone We Know. That film’s director? Miranda July, girlfriend of—yes, really—Mike Mills.
Mike Mills, the skateboarding, graphic-designing, videomaking, label-owning, Miranda July-dating, feature filmmaking guy? That guy calls himself a fuck-up.
Thumbsucker was adapted by Mills from Walter Kirn’s book of the same name. It’s about the Cobb family. The son, Justin, has ADD and crippling anxiety (the reason for his titular habit). He starts taking Ritalin to control both, and becomes a debating star, if there is such a thing, gaining confidence academically and socially, irking his father, Mike. Meanwhile, his mother Audrey holds onto a girlish obsession with a TV star, even getting a job at a rehab clinic so she can meet him.
“The book has this funny thing of being very accurate about what happens in families and all the psychological layers and all of the unproud things we do to each other when we love each other,” says Mills from his home in Los Angeles. “And at the same time it was very funny, but not making fun of the characters and the people, you know, for their flaws. It’s sort of ‘Life is a very funny thing, and love is a very funny thing and being in a family is very funny thing.’ It was both very accurate, but gave me a lot of relief. It didn’t like, punish you for your fuck-ups. And I need that”—he laughs, but not the smug laugh of someone who appears successful when his life is pieced together in a few handy paragraphs—“cause I’m a fuck-up.” Mills, whose sister Meg attended NSCAD for a year, began adapting the book in 1999. At that point he’d directed videos and short docs, but this was his biggest cinematic undertaking. He’d never written a feature screenplay.
“I didn’t have any knowledge of what would make a good movie or not,” he says. “The only thing I had to go on was, can I fully relate to this? Do I have the right to do this because I have the emotional investment in it? You know? And that part worked out.” Thumbsucker, shot in the summer of 2003, boasts a stellar cast (and a score by the Polyphonic Spree and Elliott Smith, who contributed three songs before his death). Tilda Swinton, often so ghostly and European, plays the free-spirit American Audrey with flair—she wants to be Justin’s hip older friend. Vincent D’Onofrio as Mike telegraphs the right amount of fatherly concern and boyish jealousy. Another Vincent, Vaughn, plays against type as Justin’s nerdish debate coach, all spectacles and sweater vests. Benjamin Bratt appears in a self-deprecating cameo as the actor Audrey’s in love with. And Keanu Reeves is a riot as the hippie orthodontist who hypnotizes Justin and tells him to call on his “power animal,” the fawn, when he feels the need for his thumb.
As Justin, Lou Pucci delivers a breakout performance. A young actor with limited screen appearances under his belt—he was the kid who stole Fairuza Balk’s car in Personal Velocity—the waifish, long-haired Pucci is the perfect kind of in-between kid, the one without the confidence of a jock or the complete social ineptness of a nerd. He’s a middle-of-the-road youth, the kind we forget about when we’re trying to save the disadvantaged and slagging the idle rich.
“It became really clear that wow, you know, not just kid actors but most of us would rather not show our vulnerabilities, and we’re really good at putting up fronts to not be like that,” says Mills of the casting process. “And a lot of actors are really good at that. They’re actually professional hiders. And I wanted someone who wasn’t gonna pretend, in a weird way. And who was gonna be really open and raw. And when he walked through the door, he was very nervous and it was his first flight in his life and it all showed up. He didn’t hide it. And he didn’t need to hide it. He had enough togetherness that he could be afraid and still work and still be free and still expose himself.”
Though a teen is at the centre of Thumbsucker, Mills doesn’t want the film getting pigeonholed as a teen film, and he’s not too crazy about the coming-of-age label, either.
“The thing that I worked the hardest on in a way and the thing I’m most proud of is the adults in the film, and that they have arcs,” he says. “To me the most interesting part of the film is that the adults don’t know what they’re doing, and we’re not saying ‘That’s horrible,’ or ‘That’s a flaw,’ we’re saying that all adults don’t know everything about what they’re doing and that’s fine. That’s the one subversive and positive thing this film’s really doing. I haven’t seen that very much, where you’re showing adults and they’re not monolithically good or bad, they’re actually a lot like Justin.”
Thumbsucker opens Friday, October 7 at Park Lane