Blue Car
review by Elias Savada, 2 May 2003

Filmgoers in Los Angeles and New York City this week have the option of the watching tween queen Hilary Duff strut her klutzy, comic stuff in the unbelievably silly, childishly entertaining, and mass-market (i.e. Disney) driven The Lizzie McGuire Movie, or they can avoid the lines (most of those people are actually waiting for the next showing of X2) and catch a more somber, serious approach to teenage angst in the pitch-perfect Blue Car, a first feature of remarkable honesty and strength from Kate Moncrieff, who spent more than half a decade as a series regular on four daytime dramas dating back to The Guiding Light in 1986. Moncrieff put her acting career on hold after her script for Blue Car received a prestigious Don and Gee Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship back in 1998, sharing honors with Michael A. Rich for Finding Forrester, another tale of inspiration and literary guidance. Arriving later at the box office gate than her co-winner, Moncrieff's film is perhaps slight of budget but full of heart, soul, and a ton of acting talent, all well stirred by a new director who has expertly transferred her story of family failures and teen dreams to the big screen.

Seventeen-year-old Agnes Bruckner earned her acting stripes early, as a regular on the CBS soap opera The Bold and The Beautiful, coincidentally one of the series in which Moncrieff was featured before Bruckner entered kindergarten. Now, six years later, her performance as a fragile student is a bold, forceful step in career arc that is curving upwards, comparable to Thora Birch's riveting jump from puberty in American Beauty, the quintessential dysfunctional American family film. Ms. Brucker's Meg Denning is a beautiful, bright student, much enamored of her AP English teacher Tony Auster (David Strathairn), a seemingly earnest instructor willing to nurture the shy youngster as a budding poet. Meg, the product of a broken home, struggles with her unappreciative, over-worked mother (Margaret Colin), and Lily, a bratty, younger sister who is dangerously prone to self-destructive tendancies. Auster, we learn, has lost a son years earlier and his wife (Frances Fisher, in a short yet well-delivered role), still wallows in alcoholic disbelief and a marital relationship bordering on frigidity.

Strathairn, a well-seasoned actor who hits his mark here as a double-faced husband/father/teacher with an itch for writing a novel in invisible ink, is selfishly apt to quote Rilke to impress susceptible young ladies. Best known for his passionate work with director John Sayles (Limbo, Passion Fish, City of Hope), his performance evolves from "Mr. Understanding" teacher-of-the-year mode to I-don't-wear-a-seatbelt silent statement to poster child for the moth-to-the-flame, schmuck-of-the-month club, as he lets his temptations compromise his student at her most vulnerable moment. Perfectly believable for an unsympathetic individual.

The other stellar actor is freckled-face moppet Regan Arnold as Meg's ultra-despondent sister, who commences a two-week hunger strike in a delusional attempt to sprout angel's wings. Newcomer Arnold nails the character's family disconnection and her stubbornly anorexic condition. The resulting hospitalization strains the already claustrophobic situation (the family lives in a cramped apartment) and the hereditary low self-esteem boils up to a emotionally charged breaking point.

The film's titular automobile is Meg's father's vehicle, the one in which he drove off when he abandoned the women in his life. Meg mistakenly believes he shares her affection for him, but it's an illusion. He doesn't even pay his former family the meager $60-per-week child support. Blue Car is also the name of the sorrow-filled elegy penned by Meg that strikes a compassionate note with Auster. The mentor urges her to push "deeper" in her creative process, and inspires her to participate in the Ohio State Discovery Award for Young Poets contest (which oddly has its national competition in Florida during Spring Break).

In a way, the film's treatment of men as the lesser sex reminds me of director Coline Serreau's approach to the subject in her smart, sassy Chaos, wherein French men were akin to pond scum. Aside from the absent father and the teacher-as-father illusion, Meg's best friend's brother does a disappearing act on her just as he promised to give her a hitch to Florida for the important poetry competition.

Moncrieff, who premiered her film at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2002, has crafted a emotionally-draining, character-driven piece that reveals life's raw blemishes in Job-like fashion, yet with a hope that one child's brittle human soul will heal as she blossoms into womanhood.

Written and
Directed by:

Karen Moncrieff

Starring:
David Strathairn
Agnes Bruckner
Margaret Colin
A.J. Buckley
Regan Arnold
Frances Fisher

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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