filmmaker breeds lilacs out of the dead suburban land in L.I.E.
BILL GALLO, ©
angst with suburban emptiness, and you've got a movie formula with
an appreciable advantage over some other current movie formulas
-- particularly in the eyes of those who believe the American family
has disintegrated and most of us are headed for eternal damnation.
This is not to say the right-wing ideologues and braying TV evangelists
would get within ten miles of a brilliant satire of suburban corruption
like American Beauty or, worse yet, a comic festival of masturbation
and incest like Spanking the Monkey. These human megaphones,
after all, rarely put their spotless virtue into actual contact
with the things they condemn. No, they leave that to unclean novelists
and sinful moviemakers -- who, for their part, actually have more
in common with the Jerry Falwells and Bill Bennetts of the world
than they'd care to admit.
Case in point,
a new independent film titled (pointedly, wouldn't you say?) L.I.E.
Like the hilarious high school burlesque Election or the
dead-serious tragedy The Ice Storm, it's a disturbing glimpse
of malaise in the leafy cul-de-sacs of middle-class life, heavily
freighted with familiar cautions about teen loneliness, parental
neglect, unfulfilled yearnings for love and belief, and the assorted
temptations available to kids with no aptitude for algebra and a
lot of time on their hands. The writer-director here is newcomer
Michael Cuesta, a former still photographer and "award-winning commercial
director," and he clearly means to show us again the brutal, unvarnished
truth of how troubled our children have become and how little grown-ups
are doing about it. Like a dozen moviemakers before him, he succeeds.
L.I.E. may be familiar, but it works.
here is a likable, undersized 15-year-old named Howie Blitzer (Paul
Franklin Dano), whose distress arises from ordinary adolescent insecurities
and from his mother's recent death in a car crash on the superdangerous,
eight-lane Long Island Expressway (whose initials serve as the film's
title, and a play on words abulge with metaphor). Howie's trauma
is compounded by his abusive, thickheaded father (Bruce Altman),
a self-serving building contractor whose idea of cost-cutting is
to install highly flammable wiring in his new condo project and
whose remedy for grief is to install a curvy bimbo in a red thong
in his suburban bedroom.
Bereft of emotional
support or fatherly guidance, little Howie writes secret poems and
looks for role models where he can find them. First he falls under
the spell of a domineering juvenile delinquent named Gary (Billy
Kay), who not only heads up a burglary ring but also sells himself
as a male prostitute. When Gary, with Howie in tow, botches a break-in
in the basement of a tough old marine veteran named Big John Harrigan
(Brian Cox), Howie is suddenly headed for even deeper water. Harrigan,
it turns out, is more than just a pretty good amateur detective;
he's also the neighborhood pedophile, a jowly creep prowling the
tree-lined lanes of central Long Island in a blood-red Olds Cutlass.
If all of this
sounds hopelessly bleak and a bit melodramatic, that impression
is relieved by unexpected subtlety and some inspired acting. Young
Dano, a Connecticut native who has already played on Broadway, avoids
the usual kid-actor excesses and builds a remarkably affecting performance
as a child engulfed in peril. In most movies, the notion of a 15-year-old
reciting a self-defining excerpt from Walt Whitman would ring false;
here, it not only fits but nicely underscores Howie's plight. As
the aggressive, equally troubled Gary, whose tattoos cannot disguise
his vulnerability, Long Island native Kay (a regular on the soap
The Guiding Light) is the perfect foil. The bad-luck chemistry
between the two boys is heartbreaking, and Howie's forced coming-of-age,
while a bit abrupt, is moving.
British actor Cox arrives with some formidable bad-guy credentials:
He was the original Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter.
In L.I.E. he manages something even scarier by bringing nuance
and shading to his portrait of a pederast. Big John Harrigan is
a twisted mama's boy and a calculating predator who makes your skin
crawl, but irony plays a few discomfiting tricks: As it happens,
it is Big John, not Howie's own father, who teaches him to drive
a car, and it is slimy Big John who has a conscience when it suits
him, who gives the kid a place to stay and a hot breakfast when
he really needs it. To the credit of director Cuesta and his co-writers,
Stephen M. Ryder and Gerald Cuesta, the only actual sex depicted
onscreen involves Howie's father and his new girlfriend.
film's studied lack of prurience or sensation, its details of character
and plot have inspired the hirelings of Jack Valenti, the tedious
little dictator of the MPAA, to give L.I.E. the dreaded NC-17
rating, which means that some theater chains, even some art houses,
will refuse to show it, and some media will refuse to take advertising
for it. That's a pity, because despite a little rough stuff here
and there, this is one of the more insightful and affecting teen
trauma films of recent years. The censors (who claim they aren't
censors) certainly have no business throwing it on the same garbage
heap with rank pornography and cheapo slasher flicks.