St. Paul, Minn. — Mike Mills says he's worked a lot of jobs in his time -- graphic artist, commercial maker, music video director, and documantarian amongst others. Then he found Walter Kirn's novel "Thumbsucker" and what he calls a very real story that spoke to him.
For the last six years, as he's taken on various projects, each one has been some kind of practice for directing one film.
"'Thumbsucker' was always the carrot. 'Thumbsucker' was the college. 'Thumbsucker' was the big goal at the end of the road," says Mills. "So everything I did -- I did a documentary in Stillwater called 'Paperboys.' It was about paperboys, but I was also researching the place that the book took place. So everything I did has been leading up to this."
"Thumbsucker" follows 18-year-old Justin Cobb through his final year in high school. It's a gentle, almost comedic, look at the bleaker side of teenagerhood. Justin feels there is something wrong with him, but he's not sure what. As the title suggests, he has an oral habit he just can't kick, much to his dad's disgust.
Cobb takes refuge in debate club. But even there, things go wrong when he finds he can't deliver a rebuttal to arguments put forward by a girl he likes.
Justin's life gets more complicated. He's diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and gets put on medication. He falls in love, but the love is not returned. First-time film actor Lou Pucci plays Justin.
"He's just looking for who he is. Through that, I think he ends up kind of finding that there is no answer," says Pucci. "And that he has to learn through his own experiences that there is no one thing that is going to help him or going to fix him."
It becomes clear Justin's not the only one with problems. Justin's parents, his friends, even his orthodontist, are all looking for answers to the question, "What's wrong with me?"
Director Mike Mills calls it a double coming-of-age story.
"You have this 18-year old who is trying to figure out his life. But you also have these 40-year-olds who are trying to figure out their lives, and this whole myth of, 'Once I have a family, a house, a husband, this hole I felt will be filled up and I'll be OK,'" says Mills. "At 40 they're, 'Wait a minute, it's not all OK, I still have all those problems. What do I do now?' And I'm really happy to have both of those problems and both of those ages in the same story."
Mills says the film had a sort of double life in development. He wrote the screenplay, and quickly found big name actors interested in roles.
Tilda Swinton was first on board as Justin's mother. She was followed by Vincent D'Onofrio as Justin's dad, then Keanu Reeves as the New Age orthodontist. Vince Vaughn is the debate teacher.
Yet financiers and distributers had no interest at all, and it took years of dogged effort to get the budget together.
The effort has been rewarded. The film was a hit at this years Sundance Festival, where Lou Pucci took the Special Jury Prize for acting. Pucci then won the Silver Bear for best actor at the Berlin Film Festival.
Director Mike Mills says a lot of the credit for the success of the project goes back to Walter Kirn's novel, and the way it reminds people they are not alone.
"I felt someone was revealing hard truths about themselves, revealing uneasy things about themselves, which I always find really generous," Mills says. "It makes my life easier when people say, 'Hey! I'm not perfect,' or, 'Hey! I've got flaws.' And he did it with such a sense of humor and such compassion for all those flaws, he was making us all a cushion to trip over and fall on, you know?"
Mills says he was worried about showing his adaptation to Walter Kirn, but was amazed by what he calls Kirn's Zen-like detachment from his novel, and his resulting excitement and enthusiasm about the film.