Based on the Walter Kirn novel of the same name Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is inward and shy not exactly winning qualities for a member of the debate team. Aside from just getting through the daily rigors of school he has one additional highly evident tick: he sucks his thumb. Not loudly not openly but quietly and in a withdrawn posture usually when he is by himself even if not alone. His father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) will walk quietly up to his son; when you think he's going to put a comforting hand on his shoulder he'll slap at his arm knocking his thumb out of his mouth. Justin's mom Audrey (Tilda Swinton) at once concerned and supportive is at the same time utterly focused on her job at a clinic healing the addicted. For awhile it looks like Justin's only friend is his dentist Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves) who eventually offers the advice of hypnosis to him to break him of his habit. But when all else fails it's when Ritalin is prescribed that Justin's life takes a dramatic turn for the better--he's suddenly a bright focused leader of the debate squad. Before long he is dismantling his opponents in competition. But at what price?
Pucci is the shuffling stringy-haired hero skinny and ungainly. When he's confronted--and he often is by parents administrators and kids at school--he stares back with wide-eyed bewilderment. It's as if he can't believe his life is taking this turn. What's refreshing about Pucci and his performance is that it is not the stuff of mainstream cinema where the outsiders are still more James Dean than Beaver Cleaver. And it appears that Justin couldn't have fallen farther from the tree considering that D'Onofrio plays his father Mike with simmering aggression--a former athlete who now manages a sporting goods chain. He grins like he's going to take just a few more minutes of whatever you're saying before he slugs you one. Swinton while a great actress is a bit hard to believe as his wife; she seems too restless and intellectual but this does add some originality to the movie. Keli Garner is the sly tease Rebecca one of those teenagers who laughs and looks away when asked a question as if she is in on a secret she can't be bothered with telling you. Rounding out the cast are three name surprises who almost distract. Reeves as the wisdom-spouting dentist who hopefully is in on the joke of his spacey line readings. Also on board is Vince Vaughn as a fidgety debate coach. And there is Benjamin Bratt playing a cop on a deliberately cheesy TV show right out of Walker Texas Ranger. Ragged and flaky and possibly having an affair with Justin's mother the character is a refreshing change for the buttoned-down Bratt.
Thumbsucker has a dry cold quality that is occasionally dreamy. Newcomer Mike Mills directs the movie with a clean style but like a lot of independent film it feels a little self-important. Justin doesn't live a life of squalor or endless real pain so where is the inescapable zaniness of youth? It's not completely lacking in the film just with the young characters. After all Vince Vaughn plays a teacher. But like Benjamin Bratt as the kooky chain-smoking TV star who's graced with a most undignified flashback to an effort to smuggle cocaine into the rehab clinic that goes horribly awry and Reeves as the trippy dentist the comedy here comes from the adults and their dysfunction. Perhaps the film should be celebrated for its wacky promise that eccentricity is there to be had after high school if you can't find any while you're there. But it's the depressing quietness of Justin's day-to-day life that brings the film down. While plenty of kids have tough lives in high school there is precious little joy here. The closest it comes to euphoria is a night when Justin and three girls form the debate team all sneak some beers in their hotel room the night before an away meet. It's here that the film unmoors itself from its brooding qualities but it's over before it starts as if the brisk jump-cutting sequence were there to fulfill some sort of obligation. It's as if the movie had to get back to its business of being bleak.