Directed: Karen Moncrieff
Gifted Meg (Bruckner) has been abandoned by her father and neglected by her hardworking mother. Left to care for her emotionally disturbed younger sister, her world begins to unravel. She finds an outlet in writing poetry and support from her English teacher, Mr. Auster (Straithairn). But what started out as a mentoring relationship begins to get a bit more complex.
Movie ReviewsTeacher and Prodigy, Along With Need and Lust
By STEPHEN HOLDEN, COURTESY NEW YORK TIMES
Published: May 2, 2003, Friday
With his dark, secretive gaze and clenched voice that always seems to be choking back an explosion, David Strathairn is a master at conveying the desperate, self-enforced repression of a man whose excess of feeling clashes with his innate stoicism. But this gifted actor is no one-trick pony. The range of what is held back can extend from an aching tenderness that threatens to melt into a sobbing puddle to the violent red-eyed fury he unleashed in ''Dolores Claiborne,'' which found him delivering one of the scariest portrayals of a drunken wife-batterer ever etched on celluloid.
In ''Blue Car,'' he plays Mr. Auster, a dedicated high school English teacher intellectually and erotically drawn to his star student, Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a beautiful, precociously talented aspiring poet. Mr. Strathairn's complex, exquisitely nuanced portrayal of a man who goes over the line allows his character to be both hero and villain, sometimes at once.
To Meg, an angry, troubled young woman who is part angel, part surly teenage rebel, Auster becomes a surrogate father and mentor who tutors her after school and ultimately arranges for her to travel to Florida to participate in a national poetry competition. Once she is there, he throws caution to the winds despite the presence of his wife and son. The move he makes is not the practiced maneuver of a heartless seducer but the awkward, guilty gesture of an insecure middle-aged man.
A sensitive aesthete and caring friend on the one hand, and a self-deluded lecher and an impostor on the other, Auster is so eager to impress his protégée that he passes off the words of Rainer Maria Rilke as quotations from his own, probably nonexistent novel-in-progress. As he lurches between these poles, his good and evil sides begin to blur. The character emerges as a man whose failed dreams can never match his small, cramped life as a married high school teacher with a passion for literature. Faced with a young woman as dependent and adoring as Meg, who radiates a confusing mixture of innocence and sexual heat, he can't resist the temptation to play God.
''Blue Car'' is a most impressive writing and directing debut for Karen Moncrieff, whose wised-up psychological radar has the same acute focus as the work of Nicole Holofcener (''Lovely and Amazing''). Although the movie revolves around the deepening student-teacher relationship, it is only one of many ambiguous connections placed under a microscope. ''Blue Car,'' which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is fascinated by what the therapists nowadays call ''boundary issues,'' and the film imagines how tempting it is for the more powerful person in a relationship, whether a teacher or a parent, to transgress those boundaries.
Meg is the older of two sisters growing up in a family devastated by divorce and the resulting economic hardship. Her mother, Diane (Margaret Colin), has a high-stress, low-paying job that leaves her exhausted and irritable at the end of the day, and the bitterness she harbors toward her ex-husband leaks into her relationship with her children. To Meg, she is punitive and controlling. But every time she lays down the line, Meg's defiance only escalates.
Among other risky acts of rebellion, Meg, who is desperate for pocket change, shoplifts and assists a friend's drug-dealing older brother. She is continually at war with her emotionally disturbed younger sister, Lily (Regan Arnold), who expresses her boundless rage and depression by refusing to eat. Lily's hunger strike goes way beyond the definition of anorexia; it is a furiously willful death wish that requires swift medical intervention.
Mr. Strathairn's performance is matched in complexity by Ms. Bruckner's Meg, a demanding role that finds the 17-year-old actress confidently graduating into the big time from small parts in movies like ''Murder by Numbers' and ''The Glass House.'' The skill with which she evokes a mixture of childish willfulness and literary precocity, along with a deceptively poised awareness of herself as a desirable woman, nearly matches Alison Lohman's breakout performance last year in ''White Oleander.''
In some ways, the movie's vision of suburban life echoes ''American Beauty,'' which presented a much sleeker, higher-rent portrait of disenchanted adults and their hostile teenage children. But here, the emotional edges are rougher and life is more harried. The movie conveys a sense of how hard ordinary people have to work to stay afloat in today's hyper-competitive labor market where job security can no longer be taken for granted.
''Blue Car,'' which takes its title from
one of Meg's poems, has a real reverence for literature, along with a
clear understanding of what's good and bad poetry. It has no use for
the kind of sentimental mush the movies typically present as poetry.
Auster knows what he's talking about when he advises Meg to cut her
language to the bone and go for a ruthless emotional honesty. And in
the movie's sad dramatic climax, when Meg unveils a newly minted poem
at the Florida competition, that advice comes back to haunt him.
Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; director of photography, Rob Sweeney; edited by Toby Yates; music by Adam Gorgoni; production designer, Kristan Andrews; produced by Peer J. Oppenheimer, Amy Sommer and David Waters; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 87 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: David Strathairn (Auster), Agnes Bruckner (Meg), Margaret Colin (Diane), A. J. Buckley (Pat), Regan Arnold (Lily) and Frances Fisher (Delia).