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With: Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kelli Garner, Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn, Benjamin Bratt
Written by: Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn
Directed by: Mike Mills
MPAA Rating: R for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens, language and a disturbing image
Running Time: 96
Date: 01/23/2005

Thumbsucker (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All Thumbs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On the occasion of his feature debut with Thumbsucker, Mike Mills already comes highly regarded in the world of short films, music video and graphic design. This is no ordinary TV guy suddenly bursting forth with a choppy, shapeless, jackhammer action film. Mills has been lumped in with such visionaries as Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Jonathan Glazer (Birth). Not to mention that the current Resfest is showing two of his short films at the Palace of Fine Arts.

True to the hype, Thumbsucker begins confidently. Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a 17 year-old misfit who still sucks his thumb. His father (Vincent D'Onofrio) is upset, and his mother (Tilda Swinton) is concerned, yet preoccupied by her obsession with a TV star (Benjamin Bratt). Justin begins taking medication, and it focuses him to the point that he becomes the star of the debating team. Yet, as Justin's deep, new age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) suggests, maybe that's not the ultimate answer.

Like his forbearers, Mills sets up his film with a personal touch, using deliberate, dreamy pacing and striking widescreen visual schemes. During its first half hour, anything seems possible. But as Thumbsucker settles down into a parable about drug using and finally a standard-issue coming-of-age tale, this same contemplative tempo turns into a dreary trudge.

Adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, quite a bit about Thumbsucker feels like last year's Garden State -- including the heavily medicated and misguided hero -- yet that film kept searching and exploring up until its final minutes. While Natalie Portman's character tried to invent something that has never been done in a certain spot before, Mills's characters are content to meander through the same old ruts.

To his credit, Mills generates thoughtful performances from his excellent cast. D'Onofrio never lets go of his sinister side, but he eventually folds it into an endearing matrix of fears and doubts. Vince Vaughn channels his obnoxious humor into a funny, restrained performance as Justin's speech class teacher. But Reeves outshines them all with a beautifully understated turn as the movie's soft-spoken guru.

So Thumbsucker is a mixed bag, but Mills is still in good company; Michel Gondry's debut, Human Nature, was equally so. Mills may be all thumbs now, but that doesn't mean he won't eventually find his footing.

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