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Published: Friday, 10/7/2005

Movie review: Thumbsucker **


There was a fast-food commercial a few years back in which a little old lady looked at her hamburger and yelled, Where s the beef?

Watching Thumbsucker, the debut film of writer-director Mike Mills, I sort of felt that way, wondering more than once, What s the point?

It takes the entire movie to answer that.

On the surface, Thumbsucker is a coming-of-age tale.

Justin Cobb is the title character, a 17-year-old with a 7-month-old s obsession. When he s stressed which is most of the time Justin sucks his thumb.

One of the big plusses of the movie is the killer cast.

Justin is played by Leo Pucci, a charismatic young man who hints of Johnny Depp s otherworldliness. His emotionally detached father (Vincent D Onofrio) was headed for a pro football career until an injury derailed that plan. He now runs a sporting goods store. His clueless mother (Tilda Swinton) is a nurse and drug counselor who works in a rehab clinic and plays cereal-box contests aimed at winning a date with television star Mike Schramm (Benjamin Bratt).

His younger brother seems to the only normal one in the family.

As much as Thumbsucker is about Justin taking a long, tortuous route to learning to accept himself, the movie is about the adults who surround him and must learn the same lesson.attention deficit disorder and pushes the use of Ritalin.

His debate teacher (Vince Vaughn) keeps telling Justin he has potential, but when Justin turns into a debate star, the teacher becomes uncomfortable and even angry with Justin s accompanying ego.

The girl on whom he has a crush (Kelli Garner) turns from an environmentalist to a stoner for no discernible reason except that it gives the teens reason to engage in some sexual experimentation.

The performers make Thumbsucker better well, at least more interesting than it should be. Despite the multitude of clich s and stereotypes, the mixed messages about legal and illegal drug use, and the story s lack of focus, it s hard not to care about the people we re watching and hope they all turn out all right.

That hope even extends to my favorite character, Justin s Zen-spouting orthodontist, played with a deadpan earnest intensity by Keanu Reeves, who provides an explanation as to what Thumbsucker is all about:

The trick is living without an answer I think.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.

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