Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, "Thumbsucker" starts off familiarly enough. Awkward, shy and directionless, 17-year-old Justin (Lou Pucci) is stumbling his way through his senior year. At school, his evident lack of confidence severely cripples his participation on the debate team and leaves him flustered in front of the girl he adores (Kelli Garner). Home proves no better for him, either, where his concerned but somewhat self-involved parents Audrey (Tilda Swinton) and Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) are at a loss regarding their son. Justin's biggest comfort when dealing with pressure, in fact, is the old childhood standby of thumbsucking--a habit whose required secrecy further adds to his sense of alienation.
Unexpected help comes in the form of his orthodontist and self-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves). Played with pitch-perfect deadpan styling, Reeves' New Age-esque Perry attempts to cure Justin of his thumbsucking addiction by first advising him to imagine and turn to his "power animal" whenever he feels stress and then ultimately by hypnotizing him. The technique works, but Justin, no longer able to take solace in his thumb, ends up feeling even more disconnected. From there, his search for a stabilizing force detours through prescription meds for Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome to marijuana, with results ping-ponging from skyrocketing success on the debate team to pot-smoking passivity.
Culminating in a conversation between Justin and a television star (Benjamin Bratt, appearing in another of the film's winning cameos) who is a patient at the high-end addiction treatment center where Audrey works as a nurse, "Thumbsucker" is a beautifully acted examination of the longing for fulfillment and the emptiness that often occurs when one puts too much faith in a pacifying source.
Anchoring the film is the key performance turned in by Pucci, who displays the remarkable range demanded for the role with total credibility. Much of his onscreen success, however, also can be attributed to the marvelous interactions that take place between his character and the well-assembled cast of adults. In addition to Reeves and Bratt, Vince Vaughn is exceptional as Justin's compassionate yet borderline-overly-involved debate team coach, while Swinton and D'Onofrio portray with subtle accuracy a loving but struggling set of parents dealing with the modern angsty teenager.
Serious but never hopeless nor overly somber, "Thumbsucker" is a welcome take on the timeless tale of growing up. Starring Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner, Vince Vaughn and Keanu Reeves. Directed and written by Mike Mills. Produced by Anthony Bregman and Bob Stephenson. An SPC release. Drama/Comedy. Rated R for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens, language and a disturbing image. Running time: 94 min