Dysfunctional doesn't begin to describe Thumbsucker's Cobb family: Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) never got over not making it into pro football and remains viciously competitive in everything, while wife Audrey (Tilda Swinton) is as obsessed with movie star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt) as any avid teenager. Their son, Justin (Lou Pucci), is 17 and going through dire adolescent angst, which expresses itself in the thumbsucking which enrages Mike. Younger brother Joel (Chase Offerle) is the "normal" one, but can also be thoughtlessly cruel in his treatment of tortured Justin.
We're in oh-so-familiar indie territory here, but first-time writer-director Mike Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, has managed to really get under the skins of his characters, and the result is sensitive, intelligent and deeply affecting. Indeed, the film may be hard to watch for those who had rough teenage years, so well does Mills capture the excruciating self-consciousness and seemingly unsolvable angst of that confusing time. Justin's progress from complete misfit to "successfully" medicated debate-club star, budding romance (with plummy, gifted Kelli Garner), and the shattering of his entire world due to the mysteriously tenuous nature of human interaction, are exquisitely delineated with rare empathy and observation. Alongside this film, similarly themed works such as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and the failed Imaginary Heroes seem mere glossy surface-scratchers. Mills' film only goes awry with Audrey's meeting with Schramm, a bit of near-surreal outrageousness which throws things out of whack and returns Swinton, in her first truly recognizable human part and, up to this point, a warm and ingratiating presence, right back into the too-familiar quirkiness which has marked her career.
In his quiet, much less showy way, Pucci gives one of cinema's great portraits of youthful torment, to rank alongside James Dean or Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding. It's rare that any actor creates a character so empathetic that you almost breathe right alongside him through his various vicissitudes, but this is Pucci's rare achievement. The naturally talented Offerle is also very good, proudly demonstrating his mistaken notion of French kissing for Justin, and especially in the enlightening moment when, told by Justin that he's always had it so easy, he replies, "You ever stop to think you're so busy being weird that I have to step up and be normal?"
D'Onofrio humanizes his type-A monster dad in silent scenes in bed with Swinton, which tell volumes about the quiet affection they share, despite their seemingly passionless married state. Mills has even gotten Vince Vaughn to underplay effectively as Justin's debate teacher, who, wanting to be a "good guy," buys booze for his kids. (The resultant nerd orgy which ensues with Justin and his studious cohorts is particularly well-observed and funny in its obstreperous innocence.) There's little the director can do with Keanu Reeves' ubiquitously bogus notion of acting "adult" (i.e., lower the voice and affect a studied, hollow gravity), but he does utilize his histrionic spuriousness to make Reeves' character of a dentist who confuses orthodontics with psychiatry both funny and telling.