Thumbsucker is the story of an awkward teen who struggles not only to break himself from his addiction to sucking his thumb but also his fears and trepidation toward life itself. While trying to be Ordinary People, it winds up closer to the recent, less memorable Imaginary Heroes.
Based on the Walter Kirn novel of the same name, Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is inward and shy, not exactly winning qualities for a member of the debate team. Aside from just getting through the daily rigors of school, he has one additional, highly evident tick: he sucks his thumb. Not loudly, not openly, but quietly and in a withdrawn posture, usually when he is by himself, even if not alone. His father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) will walk quietly up to his son; when you think he's going to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, he'll slap at his arm, knocking his thumb out of his mouth. Justin's mom, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), at once concerned and supportive, is at the same time utterly focused on her job at a clinic healing the addicted. For awhile, it looks like Justin's only friend is his dentist, Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), who eventually offers the advice of hypnosis to him, to break him of his habit. But when all else fails, it's when Ritalin is prescribed that Justin's life takes a dramatic turn for the better--he's suddenly a bright, focused, leader of the debate squad. Before long, he is dismantling his opponents in competition. But at what price?
Pucci is the shuffling, stringy-haired hero, skinny and ungainly. When he's confronted--and he often is, by parents, administrators and kids at school--he stares back with wide-eyed bewilderment. It's as if he can't believe his life is taking this turn. What's refreshing about Pucci and his performance is that it is not the stuff of mainstream cinema, where the outsiders are still more James Dean than Beaver Cleaver. And it appears that Justin couldn't have fallen farther from the tree, considering that D'Onofrio plays his father, Mike, with simmering aggression--a former athlete who now manages a sporting goods chain. He grins like he's going to take just a few more minutes of whatever you're saying, before he slugs you one. Swinton, while a great actress, is a bit hard to believe as his wife; she seems too restless and intellectual, but this does add some originality to the movie. Keli Garner is the sly tease Rebecca, one of those teenagers who laughs and looks away when asked a question, as if she is in on a secret she can't be bothered with telling you. Rounding out the cast are three name surprises who almost distract. Reeves as the wisdom-spouting dentist, who hopefully is in on the joke of his spacey line readings. Also on board is Vince Vaughn as a fidgety debate coach. And there is Benjamin Bratt, playing a cop on a deliberately cheesy TV show right out of Walker, Texas Ranger. Ragged and flaky, and possibly having an affair with Justin's mother, the character is a refreshing change for the buttoned-down Bratt.
Thumbsucker has a dry, cold quality that is occasionally dreamy. Newcomer Mike Mills directs the movie with a clean style, but like a lot of independent film, it feels a little self-important. Justin doesn't live a life of squalor or endless real pain, so where is the inescapable zaniness of youth? It's not completely lacking in the film, just with the young characters. After all, Vince Vaughn plays a teacher. But like Benjamin Bratt as the kooky, chain-smoking TV star, who's graced with a most undignified flashback to an effort to smuggle cocaine into the rehab clinic that goes horribly awry, and Reeves, as the trippy dentist, the comedy here comes from the adults and their dysfunction. Perhaps the film should be celebrated for its wacky promise that eccentricity is there to be had after high school, if you can't find any while you're there. But it's the depressing quietness of Justin's day-to-day life that brings the film down. While plenty of kids have tough lives in high school, there is precious little joy here. The closest it comes to euphoria is a night when Justin and three girls form the debate team all sneak some beers in their hotel room the night before an away meet. It's here that the film unmoors itself from its brooding qualities, but it's over before it starts, as if the brisk jump-cutting sequence were there to fulfill some sort of obligation. It's as if the movie had to get back to its business of being bleak.
As far as small films go, Thumbsucker is on par and as memorable as it could be. Its statements on medicating yourself into a better person are somewhat unsettling, if realistic. There are no easy answers, but it's still worth asking.