A Teenager With an Embarrassing Habit Finds Transformation Through Ritalin
by A. O. Scott
Many of Justin Cobb's problems are of the kind you would expect to find bedeviling the teenage hero of a coming-of-age movie, especially one like "Thumbsucker," which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Justin, played by a slight, hollow-cheeked young actor named Lou Pucci, lives in a nondescript suburban house (in Beaverwood, Ore.), with his eccentric, wistful mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), his distant, disapproving dad, Jack (Vincent D'Onofrio), and a younger brother (Chase Offerle) who shows up from time to time to give Justin strange looks. Justin must also contend with the tedium of school and the torment of adolescent lust, whose object is an idealistic classmate named Rebecca (Kelli Garner).
The trait that distinguishes Justin from his numerous literary and cinematic peers is the one that gives this smart, quiet film, adapted from Walter Kirn's novel, its name. Justin's great shame - and also his great comfort - is that at age 16, he still sucks his thumb. This baffles his mother, enrages his father and provokes a benevolent intervention from Perry Lyman, a visionary orthodontist played with low-key wit by Keanu Reeves.
When Justin trades in his thumb habit for a Ritalin prescription, he also replaces Perry with a new surrogate father, his high school debate coach (Vince Vaughn). The drug unleashes a maniacal eloquence, which turns Justin from a timid, nebbishy kid into a forensic powerhouse and also, as those around him come to discover, a bit of a monster. Mr. Pucci, emerging slowly from behind a stray lock of brown hair, plays Justin's ambiguous transformation with deft understatement. And Mike Mills, who wrote and directed, keeps the film from slipping either into melodrama or facile satire, the two traps into which this genre is most apt to fall.
In adapting Mr. Kirn's book, Mr. Mills, making his feature-film debut after a varied career as a graphic artist and video director, has also updated and streamlined it, bringing the story from the early 1980's into the present day and pruning away a few subplots. His style is less antic than Mr. Kirn's, but he still manages to preserve the wry sense of absurdity that is the novel's great virtue. The characters, none of them blessed with much self-awareness, take themselves very seriously, and the comedy of their self-delusion is left for the audience to discover. Instead of structuring his scenes around obvious comic beats, Mr. Mills tiptoes in and out of them, so that our laughter and our understanding sneak up on us.
As does our appreciation of the acting. The adults (including Benjamin Bratt in a very funny cameo as a television star Audrey is infatuated with) are flawless, and Ms. Swinton, with her long face and long front teeth, has an unusually strong family resemblance to Mr. Pucci. Mr. D'Onofrio stealthily injects pathos into his marginal role, and Mr. Reeves and Mr. Vaughn manage to send up their movie-star images without calling undue attention to themselves. All of them give Mr. Pucci plenty of room and support, and allow him to give Justin an unusual and welcome degree of individuality. "Thumbsucker" is a modest movie, but its refusal of large gestures and loud noises is a decided virtue. It manages to show how calamitous and out of control (and also how thrilling) growing up odd and ordinary can be, without wallowing in its hero's occasional self-pity or condescending to him.
"Thumbsucker" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some profanity, teenage drug use and sexuality, and the graphic depiction of a nonorthodontic medical procedure.