Well, at least you don't wet the bed. That's what I would have told the title character of Thumbsucker if he'd come to me for advice. As played by Lou Pucci, who looks like he'd never have left the womb if he hadn't been forced out, Justin is a troubled teen with a twist. Whenever things get to be a little too much for him, which is pretty much all the time, he has an uncontrollable urge to suck his thumb. This would be okay in a 2-year-old, even a 5-year-old, but Justin's 17, a high school senior, so he has to keep his oral gratification to himself, hole up in the bathroom like a...well, like your average 17-year-old, come to think of it.
Based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker doesn't quite know what to do with Justin, which is a good thing and a bad thing. In some ways, he's treated as just another crazy, mixed-up kid, one who manages to steady his nerves without resorting to alcohol and drugs. In other ways, he's treated as a freak of nature, a Freudian case study. Justin's mother is played by the strangely beautiful Tilda Swinton, whose sharp features link up with Pucci's own. They even both have the same lank hair, stray strands of which hang over one eye, blocking out the world. It doesn't take the blinded Oedipus to see the connection between mother and child.
But Thumbsucker can hardly be reduced to such psychoanalytic formulas. It's interested in the full panoply of treatments that people use to get from one day to the next. In the book, Justin works his way from caffeine to codeine, decongestants to marijuana ' anything to dull the pain. In the movie, he heads straight to Ritalin, the result of a snap-finger diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder by a school counselor. And suddenly the Poster Boy for Corrective Orthodontia is combing his hair, sporting a tie and leading the debate team to a regional championship. Just in time, the movie itself seems to snap out of its doldrums, spring ever so briefly to life.
But the effect is only temporary. It turns out there are no shortcuts on the long, arduous journey of discovering who you are. Thumbsucker is, at heart, a coming-of-age story, one in which everybody's revealed to be suffering from some form of arrested development. Seeming more confused than usual, Keanu Reeves, of all people, plays an orthodontist smitten with New Age therapies ' a father figure for a kid whose own father (Vincent D'Onofrio) is little more than a figurehead. It isn't entirely clear how Justin makes it through this rat's maze of developmental stages. But isn't it enough to know that he comes out the other side, ready to suck on life's marrow?