A correction was made to this review on Feb. 2, 2005.
What at first looks like a standard if well-crafted tour through familiar coming-of-age territory takes some interesting detours in “Thumbsucker,” writer-director Mike Mills’ impressive first feature. Tale of a 17-year-old Oregon high schooler coping with semi-hapless parents and his own behavioral problems is most comparable to similarly themed Amerindie “Donnie Darko.” Both offer eccentric humor within a fairly somber overall tone, support-cast surprises, and (to a lesser degree in “Thumbsucker”) fable-like, hyperreal elements. “Thumbsucker” — also like “Donnie” — is more likely to prosper in the long haul as a home-format cult fave than in its initial arthouse tour.
Hiding behind lank long hair, seeming even younger than his slim years, Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is the very model of modern maladjustment. Most obvious symptom of stalled development is titular tendency to stick his thumb in his mouth, a habit most kids outgrow a decade or more earlier. He appears to have no friends, and is pathetically obvious in his crush on classmate Rebecca (Kelli Garner).
At home, little brother Joel (Chase Offerle) can’t hide his disdain, while parents Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Audrey (Tilda Swinton) are concerned but not very helpful — symptomatic of their own problems is the insistence on first names, since being called mom and dad makes them feel old.
Years of thumbsucking have left Justin requiring frequent visits to orthodonist Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves). Latter is a bit of a New Age-y guru/life coach type, at least where Justin is concerned. One day doc decides to try hypnosis on Justin, which works. Yet rather than rejoicing, Justin freaks out, and, after the ensuing crisis, he is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, to be treated with Ritalin or something like it. His parents are reluctant, but Justin grasps at any possibility for change.
Results are dramatic: On his new meds Justin abruptly develops all the self-confidence he’d lacked, and then some. His academic performance soars, and, when debate teacher Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn) gambles on putting him on the team, Justin’s dazzling oratory skills propel the team to the state finals.
Yet it’s no surprise when, just moments later, Mr. G. tells Justin he’s “become a monster.” He’s now arrogant and bullying, picking on the obvious faults of a father who could be far more supportive (having lost a pro-football career shot long ago, Mike chafes when anyone else excels), and a mother who may be having an affair with a celebrity patient at the luxury detox clinic where she works.
No longer liking what modern pharmaceutical science has done for him, Justin undergoes yet another radical personality shift that’s one step forward, two steps back. But story (based on Walter Kirn’s novel, which Mills adapted) keeps advancing nonetheless, its satisfying last act sparked by exceptionally well written one-on-ones between protag and several key figures, from little brother Joel to Benjamin Bratt in a wonderful cameo as mom’s most famously messed-up patient.
Pucci (also in current Sundance edition’s “Chumscrubber”) is utterly convincing, as are all juve perfs. But in many ways the glory of “Thumbsucker” is its roster of first-rate adult thesps, who beautifully underplay roles brimming with near-absurdist contradiction. Swinton and D’Onofrio are great as antsy, well-intentioned but self-absorbed parents who have a lot of growing up to do themselves. Vaughn is terrific as a teacher whose communication with students wavers between the frank and the bizarre. Reeves is delightful in a part that surely doesn’t echo his own Zen-space-cadet offscreen image by mere coincidence. (Hearing him shrug “I was lost in a cloud of hippie psychobabble” is one of many deadpan highlights here.)
Soundtrack emphasis on tracks by the indie-rock choral group Polyphonic Spree and the late Elliott Smith is a risk that might’ve created too twee a mood, but ultimately pays off. Joaquin Baca-Asay’s Panavision lensing and other design contribs create a clean, expansive aesthetic that etches Oregon suburbia as both materially comfortable and alienating. Tech aspects are fine.