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Photograph by Todd Cole/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Finger Food: Lou Pucci works his digit in 'Thumbsucker.'

Thumbs Down

A grandson of Holden Caulfield learns the truth at 17 in 'Thumbsucker'

By Richard von Busack

SKATEBOARDER, graphic artist and music-video maker Mike Mills' Thumbsucker comes with telling press notes: supposedly the film offers "a trenchant critique of some of contemporary America's sacred cows—the nuclear family, the suburban paradise, the cure-all wonders of modern pharmaceuticals—Thumbsucker takes courageous risks to speak the truth about the way we live." What do they mean, "We"? Secondly, television and films are so full of mockery of these so-called sacred cows that what gets critiqued is less like a halo-wearing cow than a beaten dead horse. And actually, the riskier material in Walter Kirn's source novel got clipped: the Mormon satire, the commentary about the Reagan age.

It's a tribute to Lou Pucci's acting that Thumbsucker is as watchable as it is. For the first part of the movie, Pucci acts with half his face covered with hair. When it's combed back, intensity and buried anger flare up in him. He has moods that turn on a dime—to use a favorite phrase of his debate coach (Vince Vaughn). Pucci's Justin is a dreaming, compulsively thumb-sucking senior who drifts through his last year in high school. The events that happen to him are more like episodes: he's a washout on the debating team, then a user of some Ritalin-style ADD drug and, finally, an amateur smoker of marijuana (the evil weed is as sinister here as it was in 1950s movies). Throughout the story, Justin is led on by an inert, whispering girl called Rebecca (Kelli Garner, who played Faith Domergue in The Aviator, has prehensile lips like the young Elvis).

What works in Thumbsucker? Using unposed widescreen images, Mills shoots in a new suburb in Oregon. It looks like Eden after subdivision; it's an Oregon where it doesn't rain. The director must be a major David Gordon Green fan, judging from the way he drinks in the slothy leafy beauty of summer or shoots a scene by a riverbank where Rebecca and Justin seem to be talking to each other from the backs of their heads.

Garner has the maddening serenity of a young girl who can take or leave boys as she pleases. Keanu Reeves is droll as an orthodontist given to incense and pictures of wolves—is the New Age the sacred cow in question? As Justin's mom, who may or may not be having an affair with a TV celebrity, Tilda Swinton is elegant, pensive and absolutely the wrong actress for the role.

This pastel sulk-piece has the cream-cheesey Polyphonic Spree and Elliott Smith spread on the soundtrack. The wistful touches make it hard to take Justin's plight seriously, even when symbolic castration is introduced (Dad—Vincent D'Onofrio—writes his initials on Justin's offending thumb to try to keep it out of his son's mouth). While Mills can't be held responsible for the prose in his press kit, there's an undertone of snobbery that can't be overlooked. It may be a perfect movie for 17-year-olds, though. It's all about being the age when four years of college and orthodenture are rights, not privileges—and tragically, one must endure the presence of clueless parents who keep sticking their clumsy fingers into your many, many wounds.

Thumbsucker (R; 96 min.), directed and written by Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay and starring Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinto and Vince Vaughn, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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