Thumbsucking for fun – it’s not a baby’s world anymore

It’s not every day I get the opportunity to see a film before the rest of the world. Despite having done professional and Signal-related movie reviews, I have never been able to snare advanced screening passes on available days.

The streak came to an end on Sept. 16 when I received tickets to the East Coast advanced screening of the indie flick “Thumbsucker,” starring Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton and newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci.

After over an hour train ride, plus an extra 20 minutes of subway transport, I arrived at the Clearview Theater on 23rd and 8th in New York City. The theater itself was nicer than most New Jersey multiplexes in that it had multiple levels and was generally cleaner.

Aside from one minor detail, I never would have known this film was being secretly screened – the one detail, of course, being the line that stretched for almost a block out the door.

“Thumbsucker” focuses on the tribulations of Justin Cobb (Pucci), who, at age 18, still has the nervous habit of sucking his thumb. Despite the protests of his parents (the perfectly cast Vincent D’Onofrio and Swinton), Justin continues to live an unmotivated life centering around his primary digit. That is, until his neo-hippie dentist (Reeves, in his funniest role in years) uses a hypnotic trance to turn Justin’s habit off. Justin proceeds to embark on a personal odyssey through different forms of escape: drugs, sex, alcohol and more.

What makes “Thumbsucker” unique is the fact that it chooses to show Justin’s habits as being neither repulsive and wrong nor logical and correct. Because of his apparent inability to focus, Cobb is prescribed a medication that he later discovers is only “three molecules away from speed.” He is recruited by a nebbish debate team teacher (Vaughn) to learn social interaction and instead, discovers that his newfound knowledge can, in fact, be a detractor when flaunted.

My primary problem with this film is actually its classification. Despite having high caliber, A-list talent in the form of Benjamin Bratt, Reeves, Vaughn and company, the public relations crew in charge of this film has chosen to dub this an “indie” film.

What exactly qualifies an independent film? Most independent films do not feature cameos by men who have made top-10 grossing films. Is it the content? Despite the unique neutral opinion on Justin’s addictions, this film’s personal-journey story is nothing new.

Many elements – the more knowledgeable kid brother, the distant parents, the feeling of isolation for teenagers – are recycled to death. I don’t need to have a camera shot of the back of the head of the counselor in charge of medicating Justin. The same goes for these badly timed, very funky scene breaks at the start of each of Justin’s new experiences. Since these “break-in-the-action” lapses were used in a uniform manner, I could see this being an effective means to push the story along. Instead, these four or five interludes seem contrived to make the audience think this film is new and different or perhaps a throwback to more artistic films.

Regardless of these problems, “Thumbsucker” has its own unique charm. Pucci has the brooding appearance of a young Johnny Depp and has potential as an up-and-coming actor.

The supporting characters, though they are stereotypes (wow, a TV star in rehab, that’s new), are funny and effective. Swinton in particular puts in a solid performance as a torn mother. And I am convinced that Vaughn has hit superstar status, as the man can make a weather report sound funny in his droll voice. The offbeat humor is what keeps “Thumbsucker” alive.

While the film is only in limited release, it can still be viewed in Princeton or in Philadelphia. Thanks to a solid ensemble support team and an intriguing perspective into the pro-con nature of escapism, this film works.