I am of the general opinion that if I never again had to sit through another teen angst film featuring wise-beyond-their-years kids, moronic adults and a depiction of the suburbs as a dull and lifeless place designed solely to choke the life and energy out of anyone who sets foot within their well-manicured borders, I would be a much happier man. However, I can still respond when one actually bothers to offer viewers something other than the usual ingredients and “Thumbsucker” is just such a film. This is a well-acted and reasonably intelligent stab at the genre that scores its points by given viewers something to think about instead of simply parroting tired cliches.Our hero this time is Justin, a nice enough suburban kids who nevertheless has one very noticeable emotional crutch–he never outgrew the habit of sucking his thumb. This is, of course, an embarrassment to his parents–a dad who is a former high-school jock gone to seed (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a mother (Tilda Swinton) who escapes her own dreary reality by idly fantasizing about a TV action hero (Benjamin Bratt)–and they implore him to stop it once and for all. Thanks to a hypnotic spell supplied by the local holistic dentist (Keanu Reeves . . . yes, Keanu Reeves) and a Ritalin prescription, Justin breaks himself of his habit and becomes both a model student and the top gun of the school debate team (coached by Vince Vaughn . . . yes, Vince Vaughn). Unfortunately, Justin undergoes a personality shift as well and the formerly friendly kid now becomes kind of a snot, so much so that he begins to alienate his family, friends and a sexy classmate (Kelli Garner) who goes off into a tailspin of her own when he begins to ignore her.
While the grand observations of “Thumbsucker” are hardly earth-shattering (unless we are meant to be surprised to realize that everyone that Justin encounters has a socially-acceptable crutch that is far more destructive than his thumbsucking), there are other aspects of the film that are more impressive. The work from first-time director Mike Mills (the music video vet, not the guy from R.E.M.) is pretty interesting–it keeps things moving only smoothly and he usually manages to find a unique way of approaching even the most familiar of elements. Another thing in the film’s favor are the performances from the unusually high-powered supporting cast. Normally the adult roles in a film like this are thankless throwaways but Swinton, D’Onofrio, Reeves and Vaughn all do interesting things and Kelli Garner (you may remember her from her brief turn as Faith Domergue in “The Aviator”) is quite effective and heartbreaking as the sweet girl who offers herself to Justin and is thrown for a loss when he doesn’t respond.The major revelation of “Thumbsucker”–the aspect that will have most viewers talking–is the great central performance by Lou Taylor Pucci as Justin (a role for which he won awards at both the Berlin and Sundance film festivals). Basically, the entire film is on his shoulders and he shifts from the shaggy and friendly early version of Justin to the cold and callous later versions with a great degree of skill and he more than holds his own on the screen up against his more experienced co-stars. In “Thumbsucker,” he carries things with a bold and charismatic performance that should do for him what “Heathers” did for Winona Ryder–transform him into an oddball icon for teen misfits of all ages.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.