Just when you think Hollywood’s obsession with teenage angst has finally exhausted itself, the indie-film community finds a new, infantile direction to sulk off into. “Thumbsucker” follows a 17-year-old with a difficult-to-relate-to problem: He still sucks his thumb. His parents won’t sympathize, and his girlfriend can’t, so he mopes alone in his room with his poor, oversucked thumb as his only consolation.
It’s just hard to care. Justin (newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci) might be a lonely kid, but that’s no excuse to make him boring as well. He concurs with his debate team opponents, gets pushed around by his one-dimensional, anal-retentive girlfriend (a totally bland Kelli Garner, “The Aviator”) and sports a long shag of greasy, face-obscuring hair to boot. Poor Justin’s most interesting trait is the student-mentor relationship he cultivates with, of all people, his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves).
But enough about Justin – it’s the film’s uncommonly lively adult cast that proves worthy of note. Take the orthodontist. In a casting decision that has cheerfully stretched believability to the very limit, Reeves sets up shop as Justin’s new-agey, shaggy-haired practitioner in that most despised of medical fields. He’s a man of unorthodox methods, to be sure – his best suggestion for overcoming the mental demons behind thumb-sucking is calling upon the spirit of a “power animal” (Justin, in typical fashion, can conjure no creature more fierce than a fawn). Granted, Reeves wades through the role using his usual monotone performance, but at the very least, he’s entertaining.
Ditto for Vince Vaughn as Justin’s bespectacled, sweater vest-clad debate coach. He plays it charismatically during his all-too-brief appearances. Simply witness Vaughn, with his hulking, six-foot-plus frame, delicately applying mascara to one of the debate team’s girls before a big match. He’s just as sweetly nervous as they are.
Justin’s parents (Vincent D’Onofrio, TV’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and Tilda Swinton, “Broken Flowers”), though, steal the film; they’re the most realistic depictions of parents to grace a teen angst-themed movie in years. They’re young and uncertain – she still harbors crushes on movie stars, and he still fantasizes about his football days. The couple even insists that Justin call them by their first names because labels like “Mom” and “Dad” make them feel too old. But ultimately, their hearts are in the right places, and it’s difficult to comprehend what Justin holds against them so vehemently. When D’Onofrio gingerly checks his son’s thumb for saliva, he’s hopeful that Justin has matured out of the habit rather than disappointed that he hasn’t.
But after all, Justin’s self-righteous conviction that parents just don’t understand is only one of the time-honored plot points sacrosanct to the high-school dramedy. There’s also his ridiculously simplistic college application process (for which he must send the big app to that one dream school, wondering all the while if the screenwriter will let him get in), and the film even features the nervous confrontation with the stereotype of the Hollywood stoner (always ambitionless, sexually experimental and dedicated to wearing only black).
“Thumbsucker” might cover teenage basics as Justin turns from pills to girls to get rid of his thumbsucking, but its techniques are never convincing in the least. After a while, viewers can’t help but wonder why the poor kid doesn’t simply give up on the drama and invest in a lollipop.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars