- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

Justin Cobb of “Thumbsucker” is your otherwise normal mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up teenager living the middle-class, nuclear-family life somewhere in suburban Oregon. His parents are Mike and Audrey, whom he calls, at Mike’s urging, Mike and Audrey. He has a saucy little brother, Joel, and a deeply unnerving private habit: He sucks his thumb.

The opposable digit is nature’s replacement for mother’s breast; it’s a wonder human beings ever stop availing themselves of its comfort, assures Justin’s junk philosopher-dentist, Perry (Keanu Reeves, in a terrific bit role), who hypnotizes Justin after he gets serious about kicking the habit. No such luck.

Turns out that nearly everyone has an addiction of some sort in this clever, affecting first feature from writer-director Mike Mills (no, not the Mike Mills of the rock band R.E.M., which might have explained why the music of the Polyphonic Spree and the late Elliott Smith are featured so strongly here).

Adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, “Thumbsucker” is a coming-of-age movie with slyly integrated commentary on the drugging of children (Tom Cruise, take heart), the morality of striving and the pull of popular culture on American families.

Justin (Lou Pucci) emerges from his delicate shell after he’s diagnosed by a worried school counselor with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and put on a regimen of stimulant medicine. The drug turns a bashful introvert into the hyper-articulate champion of the high-school debate team, whose coach is played by an amusingly bookish Vince Vaughn. (Mr. Mills and cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay convey a palpable adrenaline rush in the scenes of Justin’s forensic smack downs.)

Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio of “Law and Order” offshoot fame), a sporting-goods store manager, begins to see in his skinny, shaggy-haired son a competitive proxy for his own athletic ambitions (a football knee injury killed his chances of going pro), while Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is apparently consumed by an infatuation with a cheesy TV star (Benjamin Bratt, in the movie’s second terrific bit role) who is undergoing treatment at the rehab center where she works as a nurse.

Mr. Mills coaxes intelligent and sensitive performances from his ensemble cast, beginning with Mr. Pucci, 20, who deftly negotiates his character’s transition from misfit to monster, and back again.

Miss Swinton, of Scots aristocratic stock, threatens condescension as the mousy, frumpy American Audrey, but she gradually materializes as the movie’s smartest, and most scrupulous, figure. And nearly every scene in which we encounter Joel, the young Chase Offerle is a rude, unsparing delight.

“Thumbsucker” ends a tad too neatly and offers a paradoxically easy answer to the various questions and quandaries it raises — namely, there is no answer, at least not one that can be readily agreed upon by all at all times.

In this, the movie resembles last year’s influential existentially-puzzled-youth-of-America tale “Garden State,” with the notable exception that “Thumbsucker” takes an unsentimental view of the redemptive potential of romantic love as it follows Justin’s progress with an idealistic debate-team classmate (Kelli Garner).

Instead, Mr. Mills puts the mind-altering experience of life in the big city on Justin’s horizon. No telling what Mr. Kirn makes of that choice, given that the author recently proposed, as a guest blogger on the Web site AndrewSullivan.com, that we repopulate dying Midwestern towns as a way to protect ourselves from terrorists.

This “Thumbsucker” is more concerned with what it sees as an internal enemy — namely, a culture that frowns on imperfection and demands the total mastery of self.


TITLE: “Thumbsucker”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexuality involving teens; drug use; disturbing image).

CREDITS: Directed and written for the screen by Mike Mills, based on Walter Kirn’s novel. Produced by Anthony Bregman and Bob Stephenson. Cinematography by Joaquin Baca-Asay. Original music by Tim DeLaughter.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/thumbsucker


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