Thumbing it on bumpy road of adolescence

MovieReview B

October 07, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Adolescence is the classic example of something that would be funny if it weren't so disturbing and fraught with danger. Thumbsucker, the story of a teen who can't quite get it together, captures that ambiguity in a story that understands the importance of both perspectives.

It also hits on a larger truth - that nobody, adolescent or not, ever gets it together completely. And just when you think you have, you surely haven't.

Seventeen-year-old Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a loner and underachiever, idling his way through school. Worse, when the pressure gets to him, he sucks his thumb. This doesn't sit well with his fragile mom (Tilda Swinton) and his frustrated dad (Vincent D'Onofrio), who sees more of himself in Justin than he's comfortable admitting.

Of no help is his speech-team coach, Mr. Geary, who talks of Justin's untapped potential as though it were merely a matter of pushing a button. About the only person who tries to relate to Justin is his orthodontist, a closet New Age philosopher played by Keanu Reeves.

Much of this is played to comic effect, but writer-director Mike Mills prevents the movie from turning into the standard adolescent-angst comedy by making Justin want to change. When Ritalin is suggested as a remedy, Justin takes it. Oh boy, does the drug do Justin wonders! He turns into the star of the school speech team. He also becomes insolent, disrespectful and self-absorbed.

Pucci pulls off Justin's transformation without resorting to histrionics; it's like a radio-station signal finally coming in clearly.

Thumbsucker invests Justin with two father figures, then watches as he's pulled in opposite directions by their often-conflicting expectations and desires.

Seeking real answers, Justin turns first to his dad, who's afraid to offer any. Reeves' orthodontist at least tries, even though his advice changes from day to day. In the end, it's he who sums up the film's best insight, telling Justin, "The trick is living without an answer. I think."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Thumbsucker (Sony Pictures Classics)

Starring Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio.

Written and directed by Mike Mills.

Rated R.

Time 96 minutes

Review B

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