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by Jason Clark, Co-Creator and Theater Editor, Matinee Magazine

Tom Cochrane once sang that "Life is a highway, and I wanna ride it all night long", and in the opening moments, we see the ultimate highway of mystique, the Long Island Expressway, which our young narrator Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) helpfully instructs us is where singer/songwriter Harry Chapin ("Cat's in the Cradle"), film director Alan J. Pakula (Klute), and his own mother have all been victims of deadly accidents. This ominous road has both a scary and comforting effect on the teen, as it is the very road that robbed him of his preferred parent, but also an example of a life ahead that he would much rather get on with. Michael Cuesta's L.I.E. begins with Howie traversing the overpass of the expressway, and you think you're in for another precious musing on lost childhood and unsteady adolescence. You do get some of that, but what makes L.I.E. an especially arresting indie film is that it keeps pulling the rug out from under you in terms of where it's heading. By the end, it isn't necessarily how you'd hoped (or desired), but the trip was well worth it.

The film has already caused controversy for its subject matter (which has been slapped with yet another wholly unwarranted NC-17 rating by the MPAA). Pundits have already dubbed it "the pedophile movie", as it chronicles the mysteriously defined romantic tryst between Howie, an impressionable but bright 15-year old, and Big John (Brian Cox), the much older ex-Marine Howie develops a relationship with after his sex-for-pay best pal Gary (the perfectly cast Billy Kay, who was plucked from the very same region the film takes place in) has split town after their botched robbery of Big John's home. Gary was a client of Big John's, turning tricks by the roadside; Howie has been left to take the fall, but makes a deal with Big John. He will attempt to get his stolen property back, but Big John wants something in return.

That something is exactly where the film's biggest surprise lies. Instead of being an object of leering disgust for Howie, he begins to cling to the notion of what Big John represents. The film pulls no punches in detailing Big John's affection for underage boys, but the novel thing is that it never punishes him for it. Howie has a concrete father figure in Marty (Bruce Altman), his tart-bonking, mostly absent dad who is eventually arrested for business reasons, but he finds Big John's dedication pleasing. In one gripping scene, Big John explains to the boy in very graphic, frank terms what he sees in such a boy, and the scene gives one a jolt simply because of its honesty. Howie, like many kids his age, seems unfazed by Big John's lasciviousness, mainly because he can identify with the lonely man that resides under it. They find that they need each other for more than sexual reasons; they are the missing part of their lives personified in each other.

L.I.E. is not meant to titillate audiences or invite snickers, as it never passes judgment on either character. Neither is necessarily doing the right thing for their well-being, but it seems right to them and therefore rings true to an observer. The reason the movie comes off so well is in the performances of Brian Cox and Paul Franklin Dano, who command one's attention with their detailed portrayals of the older man and young boy, respectively. Dano is the greatest young find in years, and has the film's most difficult role. Somehow he must convey the skill and assurance of a teenager while retaining a believable vulnerability in order to make his relationship with Big John seem credible. But in the hands of this beguiling, utterly natural young performer, Howie possesses all of these characteristics and more, and evokes true sympathy for someone whose most cherished figures seem to be plucked from his life in succession. Cox, whose gallery of work is already impressive, is similarly stunning in his ability to make Big John more than your garden variety, creepy old troll. Cox pulls off the unenviable task of creating a noticeably underhanded character that doesn't make you want to head for the hills. The actor finds considerable reserves of sadness and pathos in Big John, even though his philosophy might seem terrifying. When the movie settles in on their give-and-take relationship, you're watching two of the year's most arresting performances.

If only the movie has resisted the detour it takes in its final (unsatisfying) 20 minutes, as the relationship between the two is truncated to provide an all-too pat resolution that is completely out-of-sync with the psychological depth of the rest of the picture. Its view of suburban culture lacks a lot of what made Sam Mendes' American Beauty a little too flip by really probing their surroundings, but the wrap-up reminds one a little too much of that lesser picture by transparently finding a way to resolve the story that doesn't seem in keeping with how fairly it had been playing to the audience. But for a first film, L.I.E. remains highly admirable and wisely makes you forget the countless dumb movies about teenagers moviegoers have been forced to sit through this past year (Terry Zwigoff's miraculous Ghost World is, of course, excepted). Based on this terrific effort, the road ahead for Michael Cuesta looks very promising and detour-free.