Screens A binky for a big boy

Thumbsucker’s main character can’t find a way to cope with adolescence that makes everyone else happy

Stories about awkward teens rarely give their protagonists quirks that are very embarrassing in the eyes of an audience. It’s one thing to make a character odd in ways that his parents or teachers don’t understand, and something else to take a chance that the audience will recoil from or giggle at him.

A high-school thumbsucker (Lou Taylor Pucci) is aided by sympathetic adults, including, below, Keanu Reeves as a New-Age dentist-hypnotherapist, Vince Vaughn as an insecure debate coach, Tilda Swinton as his empathetic mother, and Vincent D’Onofrio as his conflicted father.

That’s one of many ways in which Thumbsucker differs from the average coming-of-age film. Justin Cobb, as the title indicates, is a teenager who has not yet abandoned a toddler’s means of finding inner peace. He knows his habit is a problem and wishes he could stop; yet time and again he finds himself holed up in his room after a dinner-table disagreement or locked in a toilet stall after a classroom confrontation, sucking his thumb.

It’s the first of a few crutches ranging from the socially rejected to the damn-near socially mandated (Ritalin) Justin will lean on over the course of the movie. In every case, the film suggests that a crutch’s efficacy has more to do with society’s attitude toward it than with the thing itself. In the end, we’re told that the least harmful remedies are those that spring authentically from within.

As Justin, Lou Taylor Pucci manages to be convincing over a spectrum of personality shifts. He’s entirely likeable at the story’s outset, of course, while suffering his father’s disapproval and a load of anxiety over his habit. When school officials suggest that he suffers from ADHD, though, and offer Ritalin as a solution (surprisingly, Justin is more enthusiastic about the quick fix than his parents), he morphs into something approaching a dream child: He is confident and articulate, suddenly a good student and sharp dresser. He becomes the star of the debating team. Trouble is, his newfound confidence edges into arrogance.

Walter Kirn’s story, as adapted by music-video director Mike Mills (not the R.E.M. bassist), demonstrates an unusual amount of sympathy for the adults in Justin’s life. No character is out to persecute the youngster, even if their attempts to encourage him meet with varying low levels of success. His father (Vincent D’Onofrio), a former jock, has good intentions but a too-short fuse and too many disappointments of his own; Mom (Tilda Swinton) has loads of empathy but little skill at conveying it; Justin’s debate coach (played with enjoyable insecurity by Vince Vaughn) can’t find the balance between professional distance and surrogate parenting. What seems at first to be the most successful help comes from a comic source: Keanu Reeves plays a New Age orthodontist, who solemly intones (with Matrix overtones) that conventional orthodontic techniques can only go so far in dealing with Justin’s problem, then reveals his hidden career as a therapeutic hypnotist.

The movie bounces between dry comedy and sensitive observation before, in the last third, it introduces some aching insights into the eternal stumbling blocks of teenage life: the vicissitudes which sometimes look like the opposite of what they are of romance; the surprising guilt that comes when you see your parents as individuals with their own emotional needs especially when you realize how lonely your coming-of-age is about to make them.


Dir. Mike Mills; writ. Mills, Walter Kirn (novel), Mills; feat. Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner, Chase Offerle (R)

Mills isn’t shy about hitting notes that evoke similar stories. Using Elliott Smith tunes, for instance, is an obvious choice, although the Polyphonic Spree material that makes up the rest of the soundtrack gives the film its own flavor. Despite the film’s airy qualities and overall realism, it is likely at times to remind viewers of the more cryptic Donnie Darko.

Thumbsucker may linger so long on the specifics of its eponymous habit that some viewers will grow annoyed with it. But it’s hard to argue with the film’s interest in its characters’ humanity, and with the fine actors who have brought those characters to life. It isn’t going to replace The Catcher in the Rye, but every generation can use a few tales like this to call its own, and this one does the job with plenty of charm.

By John DeFore