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L. I. E.

Review by Tom Lynch, © Beautiful Boy  Movies


L.I.E.
is a provocative and very unusual film. It tightrope-walks along a very fine edge as it thoughtfully explores the relationship between a 15 year-old boy and a middle-aged man who enjoys sex with teenage boys.

Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) lives in a town just off the L.I.E. (Long Island Expressway). Viewed from the perspective of a car racing past on the highway, everything might seem just fine. In truth, everything around the L.I.E. is a lie. Those "McMansion" upper middle class houses are just a cover for a lot of perversion and pain. One of Howie’s friends boasts of having sex with his sister, another is secretly turning tricks with guys when not leading his pals in petty crime, and though Howie’s mom has recently died (in an accident on the L.I.E.), Howie’s dad turns not to his hurting son for emotional comfort, but instead to a new girlfriend for some sexual relief. In the midst of all this, Howie is lost…and a bit confused about his attraction to Gary (Billy Kay), his enigmatic best friend.

As Howie lies in bed and tries to sleep, he finds himself lost in images of Gary (roughhousing with Gary, even peeing with Gary) causing Howie’s hand to drift from his chest slowly southward under the covers. Gary also seems to pay unusual attention to Howie (praising his hair, or his body) though it’s quickly covered up with joking. Gary is the more streetwise of the two, and when he leads Howie and others in robbing the house of Big John (Brian Cox), the consequences change Howie’s life…and not necessarily for the worse.

L.I.E.’s strongest asset will also be its most damned attribute. Big John is a pedophile, but one who is also able to show true caring for a teenage boy. These ambiguous emotions give a blurred, complicated, messy realism to a story that many people would rather see in simple, black and white, absolute terms. Not that Big John is a completely noble character. He IS turned on by Howie, and the possibility of sex happening between the man and the boy is always there. Even more challenging for most audiences will be the fact that this attention from Big John helps the lonely Howie find himself, giving him a sense of his own sexual power. For the first time in his life, Howie realizes that maybe he can live outside the expectations of what he sees around him. The difficult and potentially exploitative situation that Howie finds himself in is dangerous in many ways, but it also forces the teen to encounter his own true intellectual (interest in writing), emotional and sexual nature. Maybe, just maybe, everything doesn’t have to be a lie.

Paul Franklin Dano is a real find as Howie. This actor has been building a reputation in New York Theatre, and even played young 12 year-old Scrooge (to the late Roddy McDowall’s old Scrooge in McDowall’s last role) during the annual holiday run of Alan Menken’s musical A Christmas Carol. Dano gives a beautifully natural performance as a teen blossoming sexually and becoming a young man, while remaining a vulnerable child at the same time. Billy Kay nicely compliments Dano as a sadder-but-wiser teen who knows his way around, and keeps his true emotions deeply buried. These are intensely believable portraits of teenage boys, warts and all, something rarely portrayed in films. Brian Cox is so compelling as Big John that many have accused the film of making a pedophile too sympathetic. Cox doesn’t shy away from the creepy side of Big John, but also shows us that human beings are sometimes more than what they like to do in bed.

The MPAA has rated L.I.E. NC-17, pointing out once again how worthless that particular rating is. There is nothing explicit depicted in the film, and in fact the few seconds of sex shown involves heterosexual couplings. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the corporate cinema chains are engaging in de facto censorship. Both parties are quite queasy when the subject is homosexuality. The MPAA constantly stumbles into an obvious double standard when any movie involves a young gay person, blocking many teens from having access to films examining their lives. And shame on the cinema chains (as well as Blockbuster and other video chains) that won’t carry movies with an NC-17 rating. The rating was devised to clearly distinguish serious films dealing with adult subject matter from pornography, which would get an X rating. But most theatres and video stores won’t display NC-17 (or unrated) films and likewise most TV and radio stations won’t even carry advertising for such movies. These corporations are pretending they can’t distinguish between serious, grown-up work and XXX pornography.

To get their work seen, filmmakers often must ensure their movies will get no more than an R rating. Not only is the ability to deal with mature subject matter severely curtailed, but ridiculous wrangling usually follows as single moments of film are taken out of context and vilified (i.e. The MPAA made sure America was protected from seeing Christian Bale’s penis in American Psycho. I guess only Europe is mature enough for something like that) But the MPAA made damn sure America wasn’t blocked from seeing the violence in American Psycho or any other film. The MPAA has no problem with limbs being hacked off. Sex and body parts (the ones that are still attached) are the bugaboo…especially if involving gay people. With L.I.E., just the thematic acknowledgement of inappropriate intergenerational sex (that’s never happened, right?) sent the MPAA into action, branding NC-17 onto the film and effectively separating it from the segment of the audience that needs to see it the most! (As well as separating the film from exhibition at most of America’s cinemas.) We, the audience, lose whenever this happens. Not just when something is rated NC-17, or has to be released unrated, limiting the film to a few big city showings. But also when an R rating is slapped on a movie (Get Real or Edge of 17) that should be available to 14, 15 and 16 year-olds.

I’d like to hear what the artist has to say, wouldn’t you? I’ll decide if I agree or disagree. Mall theatre chains and Blockbuster shouldn’t be deciding for me. The MPAA touts that they are not censoring movies like L.I.E. when they rate them NC-17, but they are effectively engaging in economic censorship. And so is Blockbuster Video (which is also known to demand edits and cuts made in the editions of films they rent).

L.I.E. occasionally stumbles on it’s own. There are occasional heavy-handed exaggerations of suburban ignorance, and the complex series of events leads to a disappointingly simple, false-feeling denouement for Big John. The film is also disturbing, as it should be, and won’t be to every taste. But L.I.E. never condescends or shirks from difficult and uncommon subject matter. This is a worthwhile story, bracingly and honestly told.