[box cover]

Thumbsucker

Ad and music-video director Mike Mills makes a promising feature debut with this pleasingly low-key 2005 adaptation of Walter Kirn's quirky novel about adolescent angst. Lou Taylor Pucci stars as Justin Cobb, an insecure teenager who acts out his rampant neuroses with a familiar infantile oral fixation. Justin's thumbsucking habit vexes his exasperated jock dad (Vincent D'Onofrio) — who, along with Justin's mousy mother (Tilda Swinton), also finds some latently juvenile behavior tough to shake. Anxious to break out of his social coma, Justin tries out a doozy shamanistic spiritual cure recommended by his unorthodox orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) before a crush turns him on to the more typical adolescent self-help route of heavy pot-smoking. Weed only leaves the inhibited Justin foggy and heartbroken, but a school-recommended mood-altering prescription snaps him into clear focus, and the new Justin becomes a hyperdriven debate team dynamo whose sharp perceptiveness and vicious style frightens his too-lenient coach (Vince Vaughn). While Kirn's source-novel was broad and satirical, Mills — who also adapted the screenplay — keeps the humor in Thumbsucker consistently light, focusing on Justin's interior development rather than indulging in wacky misadventures. This approach creates a couple of narrative weaknesses — for example, the thematically vital titular gimmick sticks out like a sucked thumb against the film's relatively toned down other quirks, especially as Mills depicts Justin's parents not as devastating oddballs who might reasonably drive a child to extreme acting out, but instead as merely troubled, honest adults trying to sort out a difficult kid along with their own realistic flaws. But Mills' restraint also saves the movie from becoming enrapt with its own snarkiness, resulting instead in an effective and amusing portrait of the teenage tendency of self-inflicted, self-absorbed trauma with enough ironic attitude to veer wide of "After School Special" melodrama. Cobb is good, and nearly too good as he makes little impression during Justin's early, withdrawn stages, but is easy to empathize with and grows measurably in command throughout Justin's journey to almost-normalcy (despite the incongruous final scene, which belabors the main metaphor). D'Onofrio is excellent, giving another in a series of varied, unique, and powerful performances, and Swinton is fine in a character that is otherwise purposefully inconsistent to serve a somewhat facile and unbelievable subplot. Vaughn is good delivering a restrained version of his appealing smart-alecky shtick, and Kelli Garner lights up the film as a free-loving object of Justin's affection, but Reeves is once again a disaster (despite an amusing character), displaying all of the incomprehensible line readings of William Shatner but none of the accompanying charm or energy to be enjoyably bad. Also with Benjamin Bratt. Sony's Thumbsucker DVD presents a nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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