"Thumbsucker" written and directed by Mike Mills is a very good look at what life is like for a teenager and their parents.
Pucci won an award at Sundance for his performance. He does a very good job of portraying the low key teen and his character is fun to watch as he changes to the new Justin. One moment, he is a surly, confused teen who would prefer to sleep and then after he starts taking Ritalin, he becomes Super Student, always full of energy and raring to go. His performance is very natural and it is deserving of the award at Sundance. But I have to wonder how much of the `naturalness' comes from his age? Perhaps he simply hasn't had the time to become `an actor', to `emote'. But I don't think that gives him full credit. Even new actors generally take some time to find their place, appearing awkward and unnatural unless guided by a good director. I think the majority of us have all appeared in some sort of school play and know how it feels to be onstage in front of a bunch of staring eyes. Pucci appears to be naturally gifted and hopefully will continue to show this skill in many more films.
The supporting cast is filled with interesting and varied actors. Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio are great as Justin's parents. They seem in a state of constant shock that they actually have two children. At one point, Mike professes that he is afraid Justin is smarter than he is. Mike, a one promising athlete who got injured, is the manager of a sporting goods store. He may not like the job, but he gives it everything he has, because he has a family to support. Audrey (Swinton) is a nurse at a local hospital who has a major crush on actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), the star of a television cop show. She asks for Justin's help with an essay to win a date with the actor. Both are strange, unusual and completely natural. They are supportive and loving of their children, but unsure of how to deal with them.
Keanu Reeves is humorous as Justin's New Age dentist, the man who sets him on the right path. Reeves is perfectly cast for the role, allowing his surfer dude dialect to complete the portrayal.
Vince Vaughn is also great as the Debate Club advisor. He seems thrilled to be along for the ride as Justin begins winning debates, taking their team to the state finals. Mr. Geary is a mellower version of the "Vince Vaughn" character he has played many times. At one point, he asks Justin to bring the girls on the debate team into the boy's bathroom, for a quick pep talk. Justin hesitates. Then Vaughn says "That's okay. I'm a teacher. I'm a teacher." It is a funny moment and very low key for Vaughn.
The best thing about the film is that everything seems very natural. Yes, Justin calls his mother and dad by their first names, but that seems to fit. Yes, some crazy stuff is going on in the family, but that works as well. The film portrays a sort of heightened naturalness which works and makes the film all the more enjoyable.
Writer/ Director Mills keeps the story moving at a good pace, holding our attention as Justin makes his journey through the story. At one point, early on, Justin announces that he would like to attend NYU. Mike snorts and then states that his grades aren't good enough. I get the feeling he is also reacting to the possibility he may have to pay thousands of dollars to help his son go to a college like NYU. After he becomes a super student, he decides to apply anyway and writes an essay about his family life. When he is accepted, he tells his shocked parents the good news. They aren't shocked because they don't believe in him, but shocked because they don't want their son to move that far away. After Audrey lets this news sink in a little, Justin approaches her to try to comfort her. She states "You're already gone." This scene is a nice example of the style of relationship Justin has with just about everyone in the film. The scenes ring true and the dialogue is very good.
"Thumbsucker" is a quirky, interesting, well-made film. If you are a huge fan of independent films, you should definitely see it. If you are normally used to louder, bigger budget films, you will probably have to adjust to the film. But go to a bargain matinee.