As movies about troubled adolescents who find comfort in regressive infantile habits and the soothing voice of Keanu Reeves go, this new one rises to the very tippy-top. This is not least because Reeves trades in his Matrix/Constantine black trench coat for a white lab coat to play an orthodontist. But he’s quite a Matrix/Constantine–ish sort of orthodontist, a poker-faced Gloomy Gus who can make the question “Are you ready to let go of your thumb?” sound equally like a sensible dental-related query and the threat of a handsome zombie who just might be holding some sort of steel thumb-cutter behind his back.
Reeves’s patient and the focus of the movie is Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), who seems, at the start of Thumbsucker (based on Walter Kirn’s wise, funny 1999 novel), a typical sullen suburban sap of a kid, of the sort we’ve come to dread from a thousand teen movies—the introvert who gets picked on or ignored, whose social skills are limited to bestowing sensitive gazes upon his scuffed shoes. But Justin quickly becomes both a more exaggerated introvert than we might have expected (which adds to the comedy) and a more understandable one (which adds to the pathos). Yes, he sucks his thumb as the most obvious sign of social dysfunction, but he has good reason to withdraw from the world. His parents are played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Tilda Swinton, both of whom invariably excel at playing harsh, self-absorbed, just-this-side-of-nutso characters. They do not disappoint here; their Mike and Audrey Cobb insist that Justin call them by their Christian names because “Dad” and “Mom” make them feel old, and are reluctant to allow Justin to receive medical attention for his wan inattentiveness to life because the boy’s semi-catatonic state makes him so easy to manage.
Nonetheless, Justin, diagnosed with ADD, is doused with Ritalin, and the movie suddenly seems injected with it as well. First-time director Mike Mills, a music-video vet, offers a swift, hilarious scene of an invigorated Justin reading Moby Dick over the course of one night. He also becomes so eloquently loquacious, he captures the attention of a high-school teacher. It’s the debate-team coach, played by Vince Vaughn, who maintains his 2005 streak as the movies’ Most Valuable Player by being the sort of teacher who pals around with his students until he reveals more about himself than they want to know. Still, Vaughn’s Mr. Geary builds his new boy into a killer word-slinger who carries the team to the state championship.
One of the wonderful things about Thumbsucker is that, unlike so many movies in which a character changes in order to propel the plot forward, this one stops to follow up on the consequences of those changes. You may think Keanu-the-orthodontist has faded away as a now-useless dispenser of Novocaine and New Age advice, but he reappears in a surprising twist I won’t give away. And Justin himself becomes a vindictive little tyrant, relishing his newfound articulateness as a withering weapon against everyone, until Vaughn’s Geary tells him he’s “become a monster.” In yet another swerve, Justin goes off his medication, trying to find some balance in his life. That’s how Thumbsucker achieves poignancy—in the end, Justin must self-medicate his psychic wounds. Surrounded by adult wackos, he realizes his well-being rests solely with himself, and working out his place in the world gives all the jokes and absurdism of Thumbsucker an invaluable grounding. It might have helped Justin if someone had suggested that, instead of Moby Dick, he devour a work by Herman Melville’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson—specifically, his essay “Self-Reliance.” But then, that’s what director Mills and author Kirn are getting at: There’s a thumbsucker born every minute, and Justin, a sweet, baffled kid, never seems to get the advice he needs at the moment it would do him the most good.