Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Review: Thumbsucker (2005)

96 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

In the last several years, an entire sub-genre has emerged, that of the ‘disaffected young adult’ drama. They usually involve a unique and quirky teenage or young adult male, trying to find himself with a community that doesn’t understand him, parents that don’t nurture him, and usually an attractive girl that would gladly be with him if he had the courage to talk to her. They are usually smarter than the normal teen films, they aren’t filled with WB and MTV tested youngsters, and, alas, they often have a certain air of pretentiousness about them. Thumbsucker isn’t the best of this genre (still Rushmore), but it’s not overly quirky for the sake of quirkiness (the vastly overrated Garden State) nor is it too darn preciously geeky and emotionally empty for its own good (I’m looking at you, Napoleon Dynamite). It is a triumph. Often bending the rules of the above sub-genre, and playing its mild quirkiness as much for drama as for comedy, it contains several wonderful performances and several moments of well-earned emotional resonance.

Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) is our disaffected teen in question. He isn’t reaching his academic potential, and his shyness hinders his communication skills. He also still sucks his thumb, which annoys his father Mike Cobb (Vincent D’Onofrio, in a terrific, painful performance full of words not said), since he sees it as a probable sign of weakness and a sure sign of escalating orthodontist bills. Keanu Reeves plays hippy-ish orthodontist Dr. Lyman and proves again just how naturalistic he can be. Of course, Reeves is always low-key and never becomes bigger than the role; which is why he, along with Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner, is often accused of being wooden. In an era where Roberto Benigni is an Oscar winner, naturalistic acting is often considered not trying hard enough. Yes, there is a girl (the normal looking Kelli Garner), but that story does not develop in anyway like one would expect.

The story kicks in after Dr. Lyman hypnotizes Justin into breaking the thumb sucking habit. That backfires, which leads to another solution, which also takes its toll on everyone around him. The revitalized Justin finds a potential calling on the debate team. This causes unspoken feelings of resentment for his Mr. Cobb, whose ego struggles with a son who may be ‘superior’ to him.

This middle act also involves Vince Vaughn with a brief, effective role as a slightly nerdy, but genuinely caring and smarter than he lets on debate-team coach. He’s ‘cool’ enough to buy his team beer before a big debate, but tough enough to rightfully scold the team when they abuse his generosity. The third act involves potent truths divulged; harsh realities laid out, but desperately needed confessions unuttered. What it really means if Justin breaks his habit I leave for you to discover, but this is not a film that claims to have all the answers about life, and that is one of its strengths. The film is inherently a character study where everyone gets a moment to shine.

Unlike other ‘disaffected young adult’ movies, Justin’s parents are completely supportive and loving, and are given full sympathy for their own mistakes, problems and discontent. This core relationship is strained; though there is obvious love for all, including the obligatory little brother Joel (Chase Offerle, who gets an incredibly honest and potent climactic confession about his role in the story). His father mourns over a high school injury that prevented his football dreams, and he struggles with feelings of spousal inadequacy. His wife Audrey Cobb (Tilda Swinton, understated and potent) tries to hide her feelings of general discontent by indulging a juvenile crush on a TV star (Benjamin Bratt, gently ribbing his onscreen image, and even he is given a scene of potent humanity). This bothers Justin, as he feels his mother is demeaning herself. There’s a sweet scene near the end where father and son share their admiration for Audrey; “How else could I get a woman like that to notice me, except by being her son?”

It is to the film’s credit that all of the problems are not resolved, even some of the more important ones. But by the end, we know that eventually, somewhere down the line, these issues will be resolved in a positive way, and the movie ends with completely earned optimism. Thumbsucker is a sweet, potent, emotionally rich character study, and it ennobles the sub-genre in which it is contained.

Grade: A-

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