Dir: Mike Mills. US.2005. 94mins.

Music video andcommercials director and graphic artist Mike Mills makes an impressive featuredirectorial debut with Thumbsucker, a short and sweet adaptation of thenovel by Walter Kirn.

Of all the high schoolpictures at Sundance this year, this is by far the best, treating the teenagerat its centre as an intelligent human rather than as caricature or stereotype.It is also the most understated, and its audience will be an adult one, not thekids it talks about.

Already selected for acompetition slot at Berlin immediately after Sundance, Thumbsucker willbe a critics' darling, and Mills, who comes from the same school as Spike Jonzeand Sofia Coppola, has the potential to follow in their footsteps as a majoryoung American voice.

Distributors will have torely on critics and the stars in the supporting cast to market it; even withthe presence of Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves and Vincent D'Onofrio in the cast,it's not as hip as it is thoughtful and melancholy. Mills, who also wrote thescript, chooses not to hammer home the point in obvious MTV-style exposition,instead choosing moments and sparse dialogue to hint at their inner lives. Teenviewers used to Mean Girls and The OC will not get it.

The film focuses on 17-year-oldJustin Cobb (a striking, intelligent breakthrough performance by Lou Pucci) wholives in a dreary Oregon town with his parents Audrey (Swinton) and Mike(D'Onofrio), she a nurse in her early 40s struggling with her own doubts andmissed opportunities, he a man living with the disappointment of a brokencollege football career.

Struggling to find anidentity of his own while his parents are so preoccupied, Justin gets spiritualguidance from his new age orthodontist (Reeves), but falls out with him when herealises that he has no answers and is just as busy searching for newphilosophies himself.

He lusts after his schooldebating club team-mate Rebecca (Kelli Garner), but, like him, she is awashwith insecurities and the two can't get it together.

He relies on props in hislife - much to his father's annoyance, he still sucks his thumb, for example.Soon his debating coach (Vaughn) suggests he start taking Ritalin, thenotorious drug which schools in the US encourage for attention deficithyperactivity disorder. Before long, he is experimenting with weed withRebecca. But none gives him the self-fulfilment or direction he believes heshould possess.

Thumbsucker has no plot as such, winding gently through Justin'sfinal year in high school. It touches on his mother's childish preoccupationwith a soap star (Bratt), Justin's whirlwind success on the state debatingcircuit, sexual experimentation with Rebecca and his first heartbreak, andultimately his own realisation that everyone harbours the same anxieties andflaws and that is ultimately what makes them interesting people.

Mills displays greatmaturity for a first-timer and while his restraint doesn't always produce lucidresults, it does bode well for him in the future. He elicits fine performancesfrom the entire cast, notably Reeves, who shines as the ever-evolving Perry.

Prod cos: This Is that, Cinema-go-go, Bull's Eye Entertainment
Int'l sales:
Syndicate Films
Exec prods:
Anne Carey, Ted Hope,Bob Yari, Cathy Schulman
Anthony Bregman, BobStephenson
Mills, from the novel byWalter Kirn
Joaquin Baca-Asay
Prod des:
Judy Becker
Haines Hall & Angus Wall
Tim DeLaughter
Main cast:
Lou Pucci, VincentD'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton, Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn, Kelli Garner, ChaseOfferle, Benjamin Bratt