For once, the film's title is hardly a coy allusion or abstract metaphor - Thumbsucker is a movie about, yes, a thumbsucker. More specifically, he's a 17-year-old thumbsucker, a fact that hardly endears him to his schoolmates or family. As would be expected in most any film about a socially awkward teen, the story is ultimately about his maturation (or lack thereof) into the adult world. What it ends up being, however, is more like the chronicle of some hardworking parents stuck with a truly problematic son who's about as unlikable as it gets.
As parents Audrey and Mike Cobb, Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio seem an odd choice, but it's an absolutely perfect one. Director Mike Mills may not have the best ear for story or subject matter (the source novel by Walter Kirn, should likely have been left on the unfilmed backlist) but he's dead-on when it comes to tone and casting. A pair of tired out working-class adults in a small Northwest town who can't quite accept being grownups, they have their two boys call them by their first names. Everything around them betrays this hope, of course, with Audrey working night shifts as a nurse at a celebrity drug treatment clinic just to catch a glimpse of an addict TV star she's got a girlish crush on, and Mike as the beaten-down manager of a sporting goods store unable to forget that but for an injury he could have gone pro.
Caught in their miasma of adult denial is Justin (Lou Pucci), drifting through high school in a distracted daze, retreating to his room to suck his thumb. He knows he's not fitting in, has fumbled his one good shot at having a girlfriend and can't figure out why. His spiritual and flaky orthodontist wants to help (if only to wean him off the thumb and save his teeth from further damage) and uses hypnosis. But what really helps is the Ritalin Justin gets prescribed, turning him into a high-octane member of the debate club. Of course, as a fellow debater reminds him, "You know that stuff's just speed, right?" And so we can see that Justin's headed for a crash.
Not that the audience is likely to care too much, because even Audrey - as accepting of Justin's forlorn ineptitude as Mike is infuriated by it - says of him at one point, "He can be such a little shit sometimes." The film seems aware of this and doesn't try to deny Justin's Me-Me-Me selfishness, even going out of its way to give some of the better moments to the adults in his life. Thumbsucker could even go down in history as possibly the first film from a dysfunctional teen's point of view that can actually make you sympathize with the parents. Of course, having Swinton's soulful coolness and D'Onofrio's buzzcut bottled-up frustration doesn't hurt, and casting a deliriously Zen Keanu Reeves as the orthodontist deserves applause all on its own.
Thumbsucker has great acting to spare, there is no doubt, even bringing in Vince Vaughn to do a rare dramatic turn as Justin's suppressed and snappy debate teacher ("this isn't agree club"). But no matter how hard Pucci tries with his Justin, hiding big-eyed frightened animal-like behind artfully swinging bands before effortlessly shifting into a Ritalin-stoked Type-A bastard, there's not much he can do with a character who inspires little sympathy, and worse, less interest. Mills knows how to put a film together, there's little doubt of that. But these skills and cast would have been better served in a story of just slightly more import. Less Polyphonic Spree on the soundtrack would have been nice, too.
See if you can get your lips around that!