Dir. Mike Mills. 2005. R. 96mins. Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn.
If you were to go merely on Thumbsucker's premise—a 17-year-old who still sucks his thumb and lives in suburbia goes on Ritalin—you'd probably assume this film would be hip and ironic and mildly contemptuous (a la Garden State, American Beauty, et al.). You'd be dead wrong, and you might miss out on a wonderfully delicate, humane portrait of people trying to come to terms with their insecurities.
Justin Cobb (stunningly good newcomer Pucci) does indeed suck his thumb, but it's just one aspect of his lostness—he's like a distillation of quiet adolescent confusion without the over-the-top darkness we usually see in movie teens. Finally, Justin's parents, who seem vaguely stunned to find themselves adults, let alone parents, put him on Ritalin, and the apathetic Justin is transformed into a debate-team genius. And that's just one stage on his journey of self-discovery.
Mills lets us catch little glimpses inside all of his characters' heads. Even the debate teacher (Vaughn), who could easily have been a cardboard cutout for mocking, is given depth and shading as he tries to walk the line between maintaining his teacherly authority and showing how much he really cares about his students' welfare. Mills clearly loves these characters, and it's his greatest accomplishment that he makes us care about Justin without resorting to demeaning the people around him. We're not ashamed to say we shed a few tears of recognition, and joy, before it was over.—Hank Sartin