Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is 17 years old and he still sucks his thumb. Is this the cause or the consequence of the rest rest of his problems? This teenager in angst is counseled by various people around him, who all believe they know how to miraculously cure him. First there’s Perry (Keanu Reeves, in what Matthew Hays accurately describes as a “parody of a Keanu Reeves performance”), an orthodontist fond of hippie psycho-babble who uses hypnosis to allow Justin to connect with his “power animal” (!). Then his school’s psychiatrist diagnoses that he has attention deficit disorder and prescribes him Ritalin. Everything seems clearer for Justin, who suddenly does better in class and is even recruited by a teacher (Vince Vaughn, cleverly used against type) to be part of the debate team.
If you’re among those strongly disapprove of the use of medication on kids and who consider Ritalin to be a street drug (hello, Tom Cruise), fear not, the movie addresses these concerns and shows that you can’t really change by taking a pill. Justin also experiments with pot, alcohol and sex but, again, he must realize that magical solutions don’t exist. This lesson could also benefit his parents, who hold on themselves to childish hopes. His mother (Tilda Swinton) dreams of meeting a TV star (Benjamin Bratt) she has a crush on, while his father (Vincent D’Onofrio) thinks that his wife will stop pulling away from him if he gets a big promotion at work.
“Thumbsucker”, written and directed by Mike Mills based on a novel by Walter Kirn, is an actors movie, held high by Lou Taylor Pucci, a young actor whose sensibility is as deep as his big blue eyes. Vincent D’Onofrio and Tilda Swinton also offer remarkable performances, helped by the fact that his scenario doesn’t reduce them to simply Daddy and Mommy. The characters of the parents might be all grown up, but they don’t have any more answers than their son.
Mills delivers here a rather original first feature, even though it follows the steps of other tales of teenage alienation, like a less stylish Rushmore or a more down to earth “Donnie Darko”. Let’s also mention the extraordinary soundtrack, composed and performed by Tim DeLaughter and his symphonic pop group The Polyphonic Spree, with additional songs by the late great Elliott Smith.