Behind long hair grown more out of a desire for camouflage than a nod to fashion, Lou Taylor Pucci skulks through the opening scenes of Thumbsucker, trying not to call too much attention to himself. In some ways, that's not too hard. Pucci lives in a suburban house with a bratty younger brother, a failed-jock dad (Vincent D'Onofrio) who barely hides his disappointment, and a sweet, distant mother (Tilda Swinton). He lives in a place where anonymity isn't really a problem, and he could probably achieve it more easily if not for a bad habit: He sucks his thumb. Eventually, thanks to the intervention of a New Age-influenced orthodontist played by Keanu Reeves, he stops. Then his problems begin. Thumbsucking gives way to Ritalin, and underachieving gives way to a scary perfectionism. Under the guidance of debate coach Vince Vaughn, Pucci becomes a forensics monster, until eventually an unidentifiable dissatisfaction sets in that thumbs can't plug and arguments can't explain away.
Adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker is at heart, a familiar, even generic coming-of-age story in which Pucci slowly learns to crane his neck over the hedges surrounding his house. Borrowing a page from Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, director Mike Mills—best known as a graphic artist and video director—invests his hero's suburbia with a snapshot quality, refusing to sentimentalize sulky little bedrooms and box-strewn garages, but refraining from passing judgment either.
It's a place where conformity is as much a part of the atmosphere as nitrogen, and while the film ultimately focuses on Pucci's progress out of a cul-de-sac life, it's less about his inevitable exit than about how he gets lost in the moments that lift him out. A succession of unwitting guides marks his progress, beginning with Reeves (in an unexpectedly deft and deadpan comic turn) and culminating in an encounter with a cheeseball TV star played by Benjamin Bratt. But the film's shape is determined less by the plot's progress than by the tug of war between the relentless uplift of original songs by The Polyphonic Spree and downbeat tracks by Elliott Smith, often heard over the film's many moody montage sequences. Even without them, however, Pucci's quiet intensity would set a mood of its own. Born in a place where open communication has never been a high priority, his character spends the film learning to speak up, and Pucci plays him as someone slowly beginning to understand the world around him and to recognize the much larger world around that. It's a familiar story, but Mills and Pucci treat it as if it were the first time anyone had thought to tell it. They end up capturing a bit of what it feels like to live it, too.