Great characters can make up for a lacking story when you like the characters so much that you don't care where they're going, so long as they are there.
"Thumbsucker" has hardly a plot to speak of, so it could have been slow and sloppy. But because of the characters, it is funny and entertaining, and adds up to a good, if uneven, film.
Based on Walter Kirn's acclaimed novel, the film follows the senior year of high school for Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci). As the title suggests, he still sucks his thumb at age 17 - which is a small part of the larger problem that faces him. He is withdrawn from his family and friends, afraid of growing up. This leads to what others see as his biggest problem: unfulfilled potential.
Tired of his childish behavior, he allows his dentist (Keanu Reeves) to hypnotize him and help him find his power animal a la "Fight Club."
However, without his safety net Justin struggles to control his
emotions. He explodes in class and his teachers (including Vince Vaughn as the debate team coach) suggest he go on Ritalin.
Instantly, his problems are solved. He becomes a master debater and more pleasant to be around. He makes friends with his peers and his family. However, his emotions are being bottled up and when he gets called a "speed freak," he breaks down.
Justin quits the Ritalin and starts smoking marijuana to impress crush Rebecca (Kelli Garner), but realizes it's not going to be simple as that.
As the movie moves forward, Justin's relationships with his parents fall apart and have to be pieced back together. Like many teens, he feels like his entire life is on the brink, and the audience is supposed to follow him down that road.
The film turns out to be a very interesting comment on addiction. Throughout the film, characters find solace in drugs, ideas or the past. Justin's family members all handle their different addictions in different ways, but Justin develops multiple addictions to cope with the loss of his thumb - figuring out in the end that it doesn't really matter which addiction he chooses.
Every performance in the film is top notch, thanks to the script from writer/director Mike Mills as well as Pucci - who would be in line for an Academy Award nod if they considered this quirky indie flick. He is
emotional and likable as he grows up during the film, a squeaky voice providing a great deal of help. Vaughn, Reeves and Benjamin Bratt - as a drug-addicted TV star - provide great comic relief.
Great cinematography that uses focus to great effect coupled with campy dream sequences makes this an aesthetically original film. A soundtrack with Elliott Smith provides emotion when any scene lacks.
With its dream sequences, quirky characters and family relationship problems, this feels like a great mash up of "Garden State" and "Napoleon Dynamite" - but turns out to be a better film than both.