"With college just ahead, Justin needs to maximize right now." The self-help-inflected advice of the college counselor is enough to strike a chord with any parent and jangle the nerves of any teenager, but for Justin, the unlikely hero of Thumbsucker, "maximizing" sounds appealing. He's tired of being shamed as a loser with ho-hum grades, girl trouble, and a lingering, compulsive thumbsucking habit. When the counselor advises Ritalin, it's not Justin that balks; it's his inadequate but well-intentioned parents. If they haven't quite grown into their responsibility, they still know a quick fix when they see one.
With Thumbsucker, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, writer-director Mike Mills plumbs adolescence, a rite of passage that leaves its residue on every adult. Justin's father Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) insists on being called by his first name so he doesn't have to acknowledge being old enough to be a "Dad"; the sporting-goods-store proprietor lives by the alpha-male adage "Winners Treat Every Practice as a Game," though the variation on "carpe diem" masks regret over his own misspent youth. Mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton), who cultivates a girlish crush on TV star Matt Schram (Benjamin Bratt), blithely emasculates her son by treating him like a girlfriend.
The assumption that Justin needs to be cured leads down a self-help path of hypnotic programming, speed-like Ritalin, and competitive academic achievement, all predicated on a falseness of self, while the arrested adolescence of Justin's parents nudges him in the direction of alternative adult authority: his orthodontist Dr. Lyman (Keanu Reeves, playing to his best deadpan advantage) and a serious-minded but clueless high-school debate coach (played to skin-crawling perfection by Vince Vaughn). The former cures Justin of his thumbsucking, following a guided meditation complete with power animal, but Justin feels invaded; as the latter invests his own desires in his Ritalin-fueled prize student, the coach breaches the teacher-student boundary.
With parents who want to be kids, teachers who want to be students, and an orthodontist who wants to be a guru, Justin is understandably anxious, and a sudden turn to drug-enhanced success only changes the tenor of that anxiety (Newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci justly won acting awards at Berlin and Sundance for his finely tuned work as Justin). In most high-school films, success is cause for relief, a pop song, and a fade-out, but Justin's sudden overachievement, which brushes long locks of hair from his face and nooses him in a tie, has a whiff of Hitler Youth about it. The debate coach, like Justin's father, encourages a "stone-faced killer" instinct ("Line 'em up; knock 'em down"), and Justin sheds moral self-examination as he lays the groundwork for college and a planned career in TV journalism.
Kirn and Mills satirize the ideals of "Pictureland," an America obsessed with exterior image and internal conformity (Bratt's Schram turns up long enough to shatter some illusions and cause concern about Justin's potential future celebrity), but the home stretch pays off each character's search for happiness, normality, or plain rightness. Kirn's sharp-tongued novel would suggest an Alexander Payne film rife with arch satire, but Mills ultimately goes for a more deeply affecting emotional study.
Wisely eschewing the novel's third-act Mormon subplot, Mills dramatizes the inevitable parent-child separation. The resolution lacks the delicacy of the rest of the film—the final moments are too articulate and reassuring for a story that hasn't cottoned to easy solutions—but otherwise Thumbsucker consistently diverges from the obvious, with a realistically troubled teen and parents who show signs of selfishness but also genuine concern to do right by their son. Mills' subtlety, unforced photography, and use of music by Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree and the late Elliott Smith suggest he may be the real-deal heir to Hal Ashby.