Thumbsucker (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to tales about the hand's opposable digit, there have been Thumbelina, Tom Thumb, and now Thumbsucker. A quirky character piece that could just as easily go by the title of Ritalin Nation, Thumbsucker boasts a strong character arc, some nice performances, and an understated message about the overprescribing of drugs to American youths. But Mike Mills doesn't want this to turn into a soap box sermon, so he avoids sensationalization and melodrama. Thumbsucker may have something to say, but it doesn't need a hammer or a bullhorn to make its statement.

17-year old Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) has an oral fixation: he never stopped sucking his thumb. It has become a secret addiction - a dirty secret he tries to hide from everyone. In school, between classes, he sneaks into the bathroom for a quick suck. At home, he does it behind closed doors. It infuriates his father, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), who can't understand why a teenager won't give up such a childish habit. His mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), is more supportive. His orthodontist, Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), hypnotizes him in an attempt to sort out the situation. But Justin is not "fixed" and his unwillingness to conquer his addiction causes him to lose a chance with a potential girlfriend, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), another member of the school debating team.

The answer to all of Justin's problems falls into his lap when he is diagnoses as having ADHD. His is given a prescription for Ritalin (or a Ritalin-like medication) that focuses his concentration, makes him more upbeat, and allows him to give up thumbsucking. Suddenly, he's the star of the debating team, but his teacher, Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), is alarmed by the radical changes to Justin's personality. The next time Justin encounters Rebecca, she has become a stoner, and he's looking to add both marijuana and sex to his list of new experiences.

Those who appreciate strong character development will like what Thumbsucker has to offer. Justin is a believable individual, not a Hollywood type, and he undergoes several credible transformations during the course of the film. Other characters touching his periphery grow as well, and not all for the better. Mike must confront the responsibilities of being a parent and acting his age. Audrey finds something more fulfilling than dreaming of winning a contest that offers a date with a TV star. Perry confronts disillusionment head-on. And Rebecca shows a side that many socially inept teenagers will be all too familiar with. During the course of Thumbsucker, Justin learns a number of lessons, and not all of them come easily.

Mills makes a subtle comment about the ease with which children are prescribed drugs like Ritalin, but he doesn't overdo it. Through Justin, he displays the pros and cons of the treatment, but it's obvious that he's not a fan. Does Justin need the drug to grow up, or does it become a crutch that delays him from finding his true self and propels him down a path that leads to unfulfilling experimentation? Mills poses the question but doesn't answer it. He's less interested in a debate on the morality of stimulants than he is in showing how Justin reacts to them.

Thumbsucker has an interesting cast. Relative newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci is a standout in his first lead role - this could be the start of a career worth watching. Kelli Garner, a late replacement for Scarlett Johansson, builds on the promise she showed during her brief exposure in The Aviator. Tilda Swinton continues to amaze with her chameleon-like ability to fill any role - is there a more accomplished female character actor working today? Vincent D'Onofrio is given a rare chance to play an everyday sort of guy, and Vince Vaughn is allowed to underplay a part. Finally, there's Keanu Reeves, who doesn't try to exceed his limited range. He's like an adult version of one of his best-loved parts, Ted Logan.

I won't go so far as to decree Thumbsucker to be an exceptional coming-of-age drama, but it's a solid contender. The film captures many of the nuances of enduring high school as an outsider without falling into the common trap of exaggerating the experience and turning the protagonist into an unlikely hero. Thumbsucker is true to its nature, and that makes Justin's eventual transformation all the more rewarding.

Thumbsucker (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1