Based on Walter Kirn's acclaimed bildungsroman, first-time director Mike Mills' darkly comic fable follows introverted suburban teenager Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) down the rabbit hole and out the other end, where some semblance of maturity awaits. Seventeen-year-old Justin is a passive, unmotivated underachiever who's friendless, shy around girls ...read more
Based on Walter Kirn's acclaimed bildungsroman, first-time director Mike Mills' darkly comic fable follows introverted suburban teenager Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) down the rabbit hole and out the other end, where some semblance of maturity awaits. Seventeen-year-old Justin is a passive, unmotivated underachiever who's friendless, shy around girls his crush on environmentalist classmate Rebecca (Kelli Garner) goes unreciprocated less because she isn't interested than because he can't make the most tentative move in her direction and always hiding behind a fringe of floppy hair. But what really drives his parents crazy especially his macho, ferociously competitive dad, Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) is that he still sucks his thumb. Justin's hippy-dippy orthodontist, Dr. Lyman (Keanu Reeves), suggests hypnosis, which does indeed break Justin of thumb sucking but leaves him jittery and desperate for a new oral fixation. Justin's guidance counselor suggests Ritalin as a solution to his poor academic performance. Justin's mother, Audrey (Tilda Swinton), a nurse, has her doubts: Justin's symptoms — daydreaming, inability to focus, inchoate restlessness sound to her like the definition of being a teenage boy. But Justin is up for a change and, sure enough, Ritalin transforms him; the lethargic dreamer becomes such an insufferable, hyperarticulate verbal bully that debate coach Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), at first delighted to exploit Justin's new facility for the good of the team, eventually denounces him as a glib, argumentative monster. Justin rethinks the implications of better living through chemistry after a rival debater sneers that Ritalin is only a handful of molecules removed from cocaine, and he embarks on yet another metamorphosis. The film's great unintentional irony is that the adults, especially Audrey, are infinitely more interesting than Justin. Audrey's impromptu late-night chat with a celebrity patient (Benjamin Bratt, whose cameo appearance is some of the best work he's ever done) at the detox clinic where she works, vibrates with a heartbreaking clarity completely lacking from Justin's self-consciously quirky revelations. Mr. Geary and Dr. Lyman are equally vivid creations; their distinctive peculiarities infuse what at first appear to be stock characters the oddball teacher and the weirdo dentist with an immensely sympathetic depth. The film's underlying notion, that imperfection is the essence of humanity and the pursuit of bland flawlessness a kind of soul-killing drug, is far more compelling than its story of clichéd teen angst.