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Originally published Friday, September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Learning to find comfort, direction from within

"Thumbsucker," a dark comedy written and directed by Mike Mills, has the misfortune to be released in the wake of "Chumscrubber," a similarly...

Seattle Times movie critic

"Thumbsucker," a dark comedy written and directed by Mike Mills, has the misfortune to be released in the wake of "Chumscrubber," a similarly themed, similarly titled and similarly pedigreed film.

Both films feature teen actor Lou Pucci; both are set in suburbia and feature confused teenagers, childlike adults and wise-beyond-their-years children; both bowed at Sundance earlier this year, generating much buzz. "Chumscrubber" found its way into theaters first, late this summer. Too bad, because "Thumbsucker" is the better movie of the two.

Much of that credit goes to Tilda Swinton ("The Deep End," "Orlando") who brings her trademark intensity and intelligence to the role of Audrey, a nurse and mother of two.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Thumbsucker," with Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Chase Offerle, Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn, Kelli Garner. Written and directed by Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. 97 minutes. Rated R for drug/alcohol use and sexuality involving teens, language and a disturbing image. Metro, Uptown.

Audrey knows that things aren't going well in her family: Her husband (Vincent D'Onofrio) is increasingly harsh and depressed, her teenage son Justin (Pucci) sucks his thumb obsessively, and she's developed an odd fascination with TV star Matt Schraam (Benjamin Bratt).

Though the movie is ostensibly about Justin's journey toward self-acceptance (with the help of a New Age orthodontist, played with deadpan charm by Keanu Reeves), Swinton's performance brings Audrey to the fore. The character is given a whispery voice and a very delicate sense of wonder: Audrey stares at the world, not quite sure what it all means. She's a little lost, focusing on Schraam as a beacon in the darkness.

Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, brings some unusual touches to a film that could easily have become a standard indie coming-of-age tale, such as a sweeping soundtrack (by Tim deLaughter, with additional songs by Elliott Smith) that sounds like a celestial children's choir. And the film's exploration of ADHD and Ritalin — a temporary substitute for Justin's thumb — is fresh and timely.

By the end, as Justin learns to accept himself as he is, the film has acquired a welcome sense of warmth, and a refreshing lack of a tidy conclusion. As the orthodontist tells Justin about life, "The trick is living without an answer ... I think."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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