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THUMBSUCKER ****

CAST: Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner, Chase Offerle

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Mike Mills

Shame on Justin Cobb! He’s 17 and refuses to stop sucking his thumb. His dad, a small-town businessman and former athlete still pouting about a knee injury that benched his dream of becoming a football hero, is disgusted by his son’s thumbsucking and thinks the ninny should just quit doing it. Period.

His mom, a flaky nurse, is more tolerant of Justin’s bad habit. In fact, she barely notices it, possibly because she’s so busy searching for something or somebody to relieve the monotony of her marriage to the faded jock. Specifically, she daydreams about hooking up with Matt Schramm, a sexy TV star she finds irresistible.

As for Joel Cobb, Justin’s kid brother, he thinks the whole family sucks.

It seems unlikely that a coherent, meaningful movie could be shaped from such whacky material. Yet, as it turns out, this adaptation of Walter Kirn’s widely praised novel is a wittily perceptive, laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly tender triumph. In his debut feature, writer-director Mike Mills strikes a remarkable balance between the outrageous and subtle elements of the dysfunctional-family comedy-drama, drawing top performances from an extraordinary ensemble.

Lou Pucci--as the skinny, long-haired, occasionally obnoxious but basically lovable Justin--proves that the jurors at the Berlin Film Festival who voted him Best Actor of 2005 knew what they were doing. The young man’s a wonder, and so are Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio and little Chase Offerle as the other members of the Cobb clan.

The performers who may astonish you most, however, are a few who are not especially well known for giving astonishing performances. They are Vince Vaughn as Justin’s sometimes kind, sometimes cruel debate-team coach; Kelli Garner as a student who selects Justin to put an end to her virginity; Benjamin Bratt as Matt Schramm, the TV star with a truly bad habit; and, perhaps most shocking of all, Keanu Reeves as a murkily mystical orthodontist with a weird plan for curing Justin of his thumbsucking.

Does the movie--which propels Justin through some bizarre bouts with hypnosis, Attention Deficit Disorder, Ritalin and kinky sex--have a happy ending? I won’t say, but guess which nurse gets to hover over dopey Matt Schramm at the detox clinic?