review by Cynthia Fuchs, 28 September
Everywhere he looks, Howie
Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) sees traffic, a frightening emblem of
the speed and ferocity of life. As he walks along a bridge over the
Long Island Expressway, he pauses to peer over the railing,
imagining the death that each car might represent, remembering those
who have died there -- Harry Chapin, Alan Pakula, his own mother.
"It's taken a lot of people," he sighs. "I hope it doesn't get me."
This first scene in Michael
Cuesta's L.I.E. (named for the Expressway) introduces Howie
as a thoughtful kid, aware of his lack of control over a world that
rushes by daily, and unsure what he might do about it. While you'd
probably call it a coming of age film, L.I.E. doesn't follow
the usual route, from complacency to crisis to salvation and some
kind of wisdom. Instead, it offers glimpses of Howie's developing
self-awareness as it comes in fits and starts. Here, "salvation" is
a myth, and the best Howie can do is survive, which he does, with a
fourteen-year-old boy's innate grace and lucidity.
Given that his mother died just
months ago, Howie is reasonably jittery about abandonment. Also
reasonably, he's not inclined to discuss his feelings with his
contractor dad, Marty (Bruce Altman), who's busy distracting himself
with a busty woman Howie sees primarily as Not His Mom, and looking
for quick, shady-deal-type money. This gets him in trouble with his
seedy associates and the cops too, leading to his arrest. Because no
one tells Howie where his dad has disappeared to, he assumes he's
been abandoned again. It makes a grim sense in the world where he
An aspiring writer, Howie sometimes
shares his poems with his best friend Gary (Billy Kay). He also has
a crush on Gary that he can't articulate, or really, even
acknowledge. The film treats this with respect rather than
titillation: at one point, the boys are wrestling, the way boys do,
and as they suddenly find themselves in position to kiss, they gaze
at each other for a moment. The exchange is full of longing and
possibility, and in another movie, say, a teen romance, it would
lead to swelling strings on the soundtrack. In L.I.E.,
however, the moment passes, as it so often does in life. Neither boy
can act on his desire, because it's too raw and unspeakable.
With their buddies, though, Gary
and Howie act out like a lot of other bored and worried kids,
scarfing pizza, hanging round convenience stores, and trading sex
stories (one kid claims he sleeps with his sister, then is nonplused
when Gary suggests he should be using a condom to avoid pregnancy).
At night, the crew of four heads off in search of little thrills,
mostly gained by burgling homes in their suburban neighborhood,
Suffolk County's Dix Hills.
It's on one of these excursions
that Howie literally runs into the man who will change his life, Big
John Harrigan (the superb Brian Cox), an aging ex-Marine and
long-time local who has friends in the police department as well as
in the drug and sex "underworld." Despite this collision, during
which John attempts to stop the robbery but ends up with only a
handful of Howie's pants fabric, the boys abscond with a set of
John's prize pistols, which bothers him no end. Big John tracks them
down and demands the guns' return (the symbolism is too heavy here,
and indeed, such is the film's tendency throughout).
Unbeknownst to Howie, Gary already
knows John, having turned some tricks for him and slept with him as
well. To Howie, John initially looks ominous: he really is big, in a
physical sense, as well as the way that his self-assured presence
seems to fill up a space. When John suggests that Howie might
perform a sexual service for him, the boy is taken aback, but then
begins to tease John, coming to a sudden and also uncertain
comprehension of his own sexual power. In order to maintain some
semblance of control over the situation, John pulls back, then takes
pity on Howie when first, his father and then Gary, disappear.
Even as the power dynamic between
them shifts continually, John and Howie come to a tenuous mutual
trust. Howie's openness to experience, and his aggressive pursuit of
affection and attention, make him a more nuanced kid than you
usually see in movies. His interest in sex and awkward seduction of
Big John are the likely reasons behind L.I.E.'s otherwise
inexplicable NC-17 rating. While an adult's deviant longings might
be standard movie fare, a boy's desire is clearly unnerving, as kids
are supposed to have no such desires, and certainly, no apprehension
of their bodies as erotic. Howie's lust and curiosity are so
innocent, so childlike, and so natural, that they can't help but be
troubling to those adults who forget how sexually charged their
childhood experiences could be.
But if this exploration of Howie's
desire is the movie's most daring aspect, its eventual punishment of
the complicated pederast Big John is its most banal. Delivered by a
spurned boy-lover at film's end, this creates an unnecessary and
too-tidy "cause-and-effect" trajectory. Worse, it jams up the
movie's earlier, subtle evocations of all the confusions and
catastrophes that make life resemble freeway traffic.
Click here to read Paula Nechak's'
Paul Franklin Dano
Stephen M. Ryder
NC-17 - No One
Under 17 Admitted.