L.I.E.
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 28 September 2001

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 lives.

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' interview.

Directed by:
Michael Cuesta

Starring:
Paul Franklin Dano
 Brian Cox
Billy Kay
Bruce Altman

Written by:
Stephen M. Ryder
Michael Cuesta
Gerald Cuesta

Rated:
NC-17 - No One
Under 17 Admitted.

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