Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:

Thumb Sucking:
A Subliminal Persuasion/Self-Hypnosis
Audio Cassette

. "Thumbsucker"

As another look into an American family with odd, if not grotesque, characteristics, this coming-of-age psycho comedy bears a greater resemblance to "Imaginary Heroes" than "Donnie Darko." Nor does it come close to titular cousin "Chumscrubber." No, "Thumbsucker" is not surreal, though it might have benefited if it were cast in a more unearthly sphere of enlightenment.

It's not out of the question for a seventeen year-old to carry the practice of thumbsucking from childhood into his teen years, and that's what Justin Cobb is doing. To the great consternation of his family, particularly mom Audrey (Tilda Swinton) but bewildered dad Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), too. Not that his habit doesn't bother Justin himself. He's old enough to know it looks bad, but that's what uncontrollable habits are... they're uncontrollable. Above all, the practice is a signal of troubles within.

Which doesn't exactly endear the poor boy to us, either. As a debate team member on campus, he's too hyper to take much advantage of his intellect and he can't do much about disappointing Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughan), the school teacher in charge of the team. Justin suffers the mocking indignities of little brother Joel (Chase Offerle), too, as you can well imagine. Is this why he submits when his dentist Dr. Lyman (Keanu Reeves) proposes hypnosis?

The most wounding failure, however, is with potential girlfriend Rebecca (Kelli Garner - Faith Domergue in "The Aviator") who is showing signs of some precocity as she comes into sexual maturity. But before there's much consummation, they're splitsville.

Then comes a miracle of modern medicine. Someone correctly prescribes the right medicine and, shortly after starting on his regime of Ritalin, Justin's world of darkness opens up to bright pastures of plenty. Not only does it appear that his thumbsucking days are over, but in debates he's knocking 'em dead, winning contests for his team up and down the state.

He also gets back with Kelli who, for awhile, introduces him to a whole new world of experimental sex, which he rejects because it's emotionally meaningless. Reject Kelli Garner when she's in a gift giving mode? The boy really is delusional.

But, whoa, we can't be depending on the therapeutic power of modern drugs forever. Mood-altering may help one's self-image for a time, but dependency is just a substitution for real life. And, besides, the changeover is none too convincing by writer-director Mike Mills in the first place.

So, more mundane issues have to be found to resolve the tale that teeters on the precipice of credibility, which isn't helped by an actor as low wattage as Pucci, who seems to be getting knocked about by the exigencies of the screenplay more than becoming its master and causing our involvement. The gaps in screen command is filled by the concerns of his elders as he feeds into the writer's conceptions.

As someone who greatly appreciates seeing actors take on roles outside their usual mold, I pat some of the supporting cast on their backs. Vincent D'Onofrio, that borderline exotic usually on one side of law enforcement or the other ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Case of Evil," "Imposter") shows up here as an ex-jock at middle age trying to figure out the strange paths of a maladjusted son. The cool and sometimes thinly stretched Vince Vaughn ("Be Cool," ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith") as a debate teacher restrained to being concerned about the identity crisis of a problem student is another nice switch.

The highly capable Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, has played mothers before ("The Deep End") though this version does seem a mite unadventurous for the many faceted actress, and Keanu Reeves is strictly in familiar territory as a space cadet who's inhaled too much laughing gas.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Lou Pucci as the thumbsucker
Pondering the rascal

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