Justin Cobb is a totally normal 17-year-old high school senior. Totally. He's bright but not a genius, moody but not despondent, interested in girls but furtive in his approach to the cute dark-haired environmentalist in science class. He's not too sure about his parents, but he doesn't hate them. His little brother is a jerk, but he's really not so bad. His teachers are a little weird, but they mean well.
The only thing in Justin's life that's not normal -- the only thing -- is that he still sucks his thumb. But that's a big thing. He sucks it when he sleeps. He sucks it when he watches TV in the living room after dinner. He even escapes to the boys' bathroom during school to lock himself in a stall and suck his thumb.
In the course of writer/director Mike Mills' Thumbsucker, which is based on a novel by Walter Kim, Justin comes of age and masters his destiny mostly in normal ways. He gets drunk, gets stoned, gets laid and gets into college. And he does all this in a movie that's a satisfying mix of very real and slightly surreal, very smart and sometimes too smart, very feel-good funny and often terribly sad. It's moody and unpredictable, like a teen-ager, and it comes to the sensible conclusion that finding happiness doesn't always mean you've found The Answer.
Justin's mother (Tilda Swinton) is a registered nurse with a crush on a handsome TV action star (Benjamin Bratt) who ends up in the rehab facility where she works. His father (Vincent D'Onofrio) dreamed of playing football, but an injury led him to marriage and a factory management job. They both have regrets about roads not taken, and they both live in denial about it. (At least, that's how it looks to Justin, through whose eyes we see virtually every moment of the story.) His science teacher (Vince Vaughn) nurtures Justin's intellect on the debate team -- and his young manhood on a team field trip, where he buys the kids beer and leaves them alone to party.
Justin's dentist, Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves), is the oddest ball in his life. He's a loquacious New Ager who uses hypnosis to help Justin find his "power animal" -- a fawn, it turns out -- which Justin must consult to stop himself from putting his thumb in his mouth (a little post-hypnotic suggestion also helps). The technique works, but the thumb deprivation makes Justin extremely anxious. That leads a shrink to prescribe medication, which turns him into a high achiever, which turns him into an arrogant prick. So Justin quits cold turkey and then, more or less, cures himself.
Of course, he doesn't really. He just grows out of it. And that's the message of Thumbsucker, which perpetually revises our perceptions until we realize that both the kids and the adults are all right. The acting is quite fine -- how did Mills ever get Vaughn and D'Onofrio to leave their ticks at home? -- and the quietly impressive newcomer Lou Pucci, who plays Justin, has a major Johnny Depp thing going on: He looks and articulates just like Depp did 20-some years ago.
The thumb-sucking plot of Thumbsucker really occupies only the early part of Mills' story, and we're never proffered a convincing explanation for why Justin does it. His dentist, who's tired of treating his overbite, has a theory: It's a natural replacement for the immutable pleasure of his mother's breast. "Some dumb babysitter holds your mouth shut so she can watch her soap operas," says Perry -- Justin calls everyone, including his parents, by their first names (they insist on it) -- "then you wonder why you can't stay married." This isn't quite typical of Mills' dialogue, but his lean screenplay is often very wryly humored, and especially good at stopping before people say too much.
Thumbsucker is a lovely little movie, intelligent and entertaining, at times a gentle satire on the things we witness, and at other times rather skeptical about what's right and what's wrong. We can credit its intriguing duality to a filmmaker who isn't afraid to challenge us with an unreliable narrator, and to a character whose point of view finds a comfortable clarity right before our eyes.