3 stars (out of four)
First-time writer-director Mike Mills has taken Walter Kirn's "Thumbsucker"--a witty, keen-eyed novel about a suburban kid flailing his way though an angsty life of school, sex, parental problems, debate and drugs--and made a smart, funny, sometimes lovely little film out of it.
It's not a great movie, or one that should preoccupy you much afterwards, but it's certainly a good one. It's a fine debut for first-timer Mills.
The movie's thumb-sucker is Justin Cobb, played by an excellent, anxious-eyed young actor named Lou Pucci. He won the best acting prizes of both the Berlin and Sundance festivals for this performance, and perhaps one of the reasons he impressed two prestigious juries is his effortless self-absorption in the role. As Justin drifts his way from thumb-sucking outsider to Ritalin-charged debate king to crash-and-burn dropout, Pucci keeps catching the moment.
In an unusually good cast of star actors in juicy parts, it's Pucci who seems so immersed in his part that it's hard to take your eyes off him. And though it's unlikely that Justin will become as much a contemporary alternative teen movie icon as, say Napoleon Dynamite and Donnie Darko, he and the movie touch a few deeper chords.
Top to bottom, "Thumbsucker" is one of the best-acted movies out right now--and not just by Pucci, but by such seemingly unlikely cast members as Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio as Justin's parents, Audrey and Mike; Vince Vaughn as domineering debate coach Mr. Geary; Benjamin Bratt, wonderful as a cocaine-addicted TV star tended by Audrey; and, most confounding of all, Keanu Reeves, who has found one of the most perfect roles he'll ever play as Justin's orthodontist, Dr. Perry Lyman. When Dr. Lyman muses at one point, "I was lost in a cloud of hippie psychobabble," it reminds us, hilariously, that Reeves was always the perfect hippie actor even though his career started well past the summit of hippiedom.
It's not just the actors and writing that make "Thumbsucker" good. The visuals are crisp and cool, the mood dreamy and funny. "Thumbsucker" is, in its own way, familiar: another of those well-intentioned, literate movies about youthful suburban malaise which, for much of the time, seems to have its tongue as stuck in its one cheek, as Justin's thumb is in his. The oral gratification though is ephemeral. It doesn't last long past the movie. Absorbing while you watch it, "Thumbsucker" tends to drift away afterwards. Still, an absorbing movie is better than a dull one. Or a dull thumb.
Directed and written by Mike Mills; based on the novel by Walter Kirn; photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay; edited by Angus Wall, Haines Hall; production designed by Judy Becker; music by Tim DeLaughter with Polyphonic Spree; produced by Anthony Bregman, Bob Stephenson. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens, language and a disturbing image).
Justin Cobb - Lou Pucci
Audrey Cobb - Tilda Swinton
Mr. Geary - Vince Vaughn
Mike Cobb - Vincent D'Onofrio
Perry Lyman - Keanu Reeves
Matt Schramm - Benjamin Bratt
Rebecca - Kelli Garner
Joel Cobb - Chase OfferleCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times