by Joel Smith & r & & r & Thumbsucker & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he key to this entire film is on one of the DVD's title cards. Near the bottom of the screen, two poorly-drawn cartoon heads -- one labeled "parent," the other labeled "child" -- share a single speech bubble that reads, "How can I be the parent when I'm the kid?"
At the heart of the film, based on the 1999 novel by Walter Kirn, is 17-year-old Justin (played by newcomer Lou Pucci), whose thumb-sucking habit is making his life wretched. What makes it even more miserable, though, are his attempts to give it up. The problem is, everyone who should be able to help him is mired in their own problems. Justin's mother (Tilda Swinton) has a teen-like crush on a TV cop. His father (Vincent D'Onofrio) has been an emotional hermit since a knee injury sidelined his childhood dreams of playing professional football. His foul-mouthed younger brother -- who may be the most adult character in the whole movie -- is more worried about French kissing.
Not even his spacey New Age orthodontist -- played all-too-believably by Keanu Reeves -- can help. He hypnotizes Justin in his office, breaking the thumb-sucking habit but sending the kid reeling. When Justin goes on ADD meds, his life comes to a finely focused point, then begins to come slowly and irrevocably apart.
The story itself is old hat: teen angst, unrealized passion, cloying suburbia. (The film was shot on the outskirts of Portland.) And a hip soundtrack (the Polyphonic Spree and the late Elliot Smith).
But the real beauty of the movie is in the acting. Vince Vaughn, as a debate coach who aches for his students' acceptance, is more subdued than you've ever seen him. Reeves, though one-dimensional, provides the film's only laugh-out-loud moment, as he philosophizes in deadpan, at one point intoning (without irony), "There is no try -- only do." (It takes a second to remember where you've heard that line before -- it was Yoda.).
The star, though, is Pucci, whose subtle and awkward expressions of teen angst are utterly captivating, never trite, and leave you wanting more. But that's what special features are for. (Rated R)