Combine teenage 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 10 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 called (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 grownups are doing about it. Like a dozen moviemakers before him, he succeeds. L.I.E. may be familiar, but it works.
The protagonist 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 spousal 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's 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.
Meanwhile, the veteran British actor Cox arrives with some formidable bad-guy credentials: He was the movies' 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.
Despite the 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.