Although the intellectual level of "Thumbsucker" is quite a few cuts above many teen angst movies and the film boasts several impressively nuanced portrayals as well, it is not sufficiently distinctive to stand wholly apart from the pack. Furthermore, its literary roots peek through rather too often in dialogue that might play well on the page but doesn't sound real when coming out of the mouths of actors.
It is also not altogether surprising that it's a first film for its director, Mike Mills, who focuses intensely on his actors but reveals little cinematic flair. This is crucial because at heart "Thumbsucker" is yet another film about the self-absorbed, the young especially, and "Thumbsucker" could have been enriched by a filmmaker who could link his people to their world in a manner that would be in some way revealing. Most definitely, "Thumbsucker" is a film of words rather than images.
In the title role, Lou Pucci as Justin Cobb is a pale, thin 17-year-old with angular features who still sucks his thumb, much to the consternation of his father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), a college football star traumatically sidelined by a knee injury and now the conscientious manager of a large suburban sporting goods store in Oregon, apparently near Portland. The Cobbs live in a spacious home near a forest; Mike's wife, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), is a registered nurse smitten with a TV heartthrob (Benjamin Bratt) with whom she will cross paths in a most unexpected fashion. Justin, who doesn't fit in neatly with his peers or in the classroom, is too self-preoccupied to regard his resilient and self-reliant younger brother Joel (Chase Offerle) — a character actually more original than the oh-so-sensitive and vulnerable Justin — as anything but obstinate.
Justin has somehow managed to end up on a debate team, though he has no taste for debating. This at once enrages and challenges his coach, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn, cast stunningly against type). In tandem with a high school official, Geary declares that Justin, though bright, is doing poorly in school because he suffers from attention-deficit disorder and prescribes Ritalin or its equivalent. How Audrey, as a registered nurse, could go along with this arbitrary, unscientific and dangerous diagnosis defies credibility, but out of somewhere comes a prescription. In no time Justin is transformed into a confident achiever, a champion debater, articulate, glib and arrogant.
Although the focus remains primarily on Justin, who is not all that intriguing a character despite Pucci's mercurial portrayal, the clear point of the picture is that the insecurities of its teens mirror those of adults, and this is Justin's big discovery.
Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is an episodic film of fits and starts. Justin's orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) figures out a way to break Justin from thumb-sucking rather easily, and Geary drops out of the film. Kelli Garner, on the other hand, is a pretty classmate who intrigues Justin and then disappears only to return to toy with him cruelly.
Mills does best by D'Onofrio, whose Mike is a highly intelligent man but, like many American males, unable to express his feelings, and by Offerle, whose Joel seems like a real, live boy.
Vaughn's Geary, smart and overbearing yet ultimately overeager to be accepted by his students as a peer, is perhaps the film's most intriguing presence, but the film leaves one wanting to know more about him. Swinton reveals all the sides of Audrey, but the role remains problematic.
Reeves' orthodontist is no more than a literary conceit and, despite Reeves' charm, remains a caricature of a New Age guru subject to drastic philosophical swings. (Reeves and Pucci have a slight but weird physical resemblance, and they're both guys whose long hair keeps falling down over their faces.) Bratt has presence and humor, but his big scene is as improbable as all of Reeves' scenes.
"Thumbsucker" aims high but swerves too frequently between the engaging and the credibility-defying to be satisfying.
MPAA rating: R for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens; coarse language; and a disturbing image
Times guidelines: Too adult for youngsters
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Mike Mills. Based on the novel by Walter Kirn. Producers Anthony Bregman, Bob Stephenson. Cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay. Editors Haines Hall, Angus Wall. Music Tim DeLaughter. Costumes April Napier. Production designer Judy Becker. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
At selected theaters.