Another movie centering around teen angst in suburbia, Thumbsucker explores the life of a maladjusted youth named Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci). When life gets tough, he turns to a highly tease-worthy refuge: thumbsucking. He is an outcast high school senior that represents everything opposite from cool, and he nurses on his thumb for solace. You see, Justin has what we call issues. Lots of them.
Then again, so does everyone else in the movie, so he fits right in with the bunch. Justin’s father (Vincent D’Onofrio), who insists on being called Mike since ‘dad’ makes him feel old, scolds him for his childish habit while sulking over his failed college football career. His mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is obsessed with hottie cheeseball television star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Starr) and decides to start working in the rehab facility he has just entered. Justin has a confusing relationship with her, where you get the feeling he would love to jump her bones if they weren’t related. Last but not least, his guru orthodontist Dr. Perry Lyman (Keanu Reeves) happens to double as a hypnotherapist. One afternoon while evaluating Justin’s teeth, Dr.Lyman helps to brainwash him out of thumbsucking by telling him to drift into his subconscious and find his ‘power animal’. All I ever got from my orthodontist was a throbbing pain in my mouth, but apparently Justin was able to discover the meaning of life during his brief appointment.
With a combination of hypnotism and an overabundance of ADD medication, Justin magically morphs into an entirely different person. He begins to excel on the debate team, taking home trophies and impressing his stern yet insecure coach/teacher Mr.Geary (Vince Vaughn). He finally has the confidence to flirt with the schoolgirl of his dreams, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), a passionate activist who wears shirts that say “Club sandwiches not seals”. Justin feels like his life is just starting to get good, until he realizes that maybe his old life wasn’t so bad after all.
If there is anything fresh or new about Thumbsucker, it went catapulting over my head. It suffers from the same shortcomings as Chumscrubber, where realism seems to come second to zingers. The movie’s message is that sometimes it’s okay not to be normal. Well, that’s good, since nobody in the movie behaves like a real or normal person, making it impossible to connect with them on a serious level. Justin is the closest thing to an actual human being, but his instant transformation throws his own credibility right out the window.
Thumbsucker ultimately doesn’t work because it’s nothing more than a caricature of itself. Kids overdosing on medication they don’t really need in the first place, feeling detached from their families, and not getting laid in high school are elements we have all seen before in far superior movies. Everything feels cloaked in a cape of falsehood. For example, there’s a brief scene that involves a few goody-goody high school girls getting drunk at a slumber party in a hotel, and then dancing around in their underwear. While guys would love to think this sort of thing is common, it isn’t, and the scene reeks of artifice.
The movie isn’t a total loss. There are some good comedic moments, though they usually involve laughing at the characters, not with them. Vince Vaughn plays against type as a toned-down, clueless teacher, fully equipped with bifocals and sweater vests. He provides chuckles in ways more subtle than his usual shtick, proving himself a well-rounded comedic actor. Keanu Reeves is amusing too, but mostly because it’s funny watching him try to sound intelligent. There just aren’t enough laughs in Thumbsucker to classify it as a full-blown comedy, which must mean the film thinks it has a profound message to deliver. That message is clear: the world is starving for more artificial movies that depict suburban life as though it were a WB drama mixed with been-there-done-that social satires. Dawson's Creek would be proud.