Blue Car, a quietly devastating song for our lonely age, stars 17-year-old Agnes Bruckner as Meg, an emotionally malnourished teenager who's trying to shield herself and her younger sister, Lily (Regan Arnold), from the pain of abandonment by their father and from neglect by their beleaguered mother, Diane (a very good Margaret Colin). Left to baby-sit while her mother goes to night school, Meg is the one who worries over Lily's classic cries for help—the little girl is cutting herself, refusing to eat and hiding out in a fantasy that she's an angel who can fly away. With nowhere to turn, Meg, who has been trying to kick a cry-for-help habit of her own, comes to rely more and more on Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), a friendly English teacher who encourages the poet in her—and more besides.
If you think you see another sexual-abuse movie coming, you're right, but in the wrong way. Writer/director Karen Moncrieff blows a fresh wind through the most fatigued phrases in the pop-psych lexicon—"dysfunctional family," "at risk," "exploitation of minors"—phrases that invite rote moral indignation ("Her Teacher Stole Her Innocence!") and the itch to point a finger and leave it at that. Moncrieff won't permit the sanctimony. Though hardly neutral about the abuse of adult power, Blue Car is an empathetic study of loneliness—Meg's loneliness, her sister's, her parents' and, yes, her teacher's. It is about how such situations grow in an emotional vacuum, about the inchoate good intentions and self-deceptions that pave the road to hell. Moncrieff, whose first feature this is, is an astute psychologist with a sophisticated grasp of human limitation, and unlike the armies of journeymen who hack out programmatic social-issue movies of the week, she knows the difference between understanding and excusing. Blue Car grinds no ax—it evokes a vibrantly specific world, and though Moncrieff has a writer's ear for dialogue, especially for the intimate hostilities that pass between adolescents and their parents, the movie shows far more than it tells. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney, who also shot Bruce Wagner's I'm Losing You, sets a tone that's dark and claustrophobic yet unexpectedly lyrical. Moncrieff has a born filmmaker's gift for working up habitat and telling details into mood—Lily picking languidly at her food, Meg's mother sprawled asleep on her bed after a disappointment, Meg primping hesitantly before a mirror, Auster smelling her hair as he gathers her into a consoling hug.
Blue Car's emotional life unfolds as much within people as between them—silence is an overwhelming measure of their mutual isolation. Bruckner has the plump, undefined face of a child and the ripe, brooding mouth of a sensual woman, and she plays Meg on a slow burn, as if holding in reserve capacities she's barely aware of and wouldn't know what to do with anyway. When—switched on by the aspiring novelist in her teacher, the poet in herself, and by the mere fact that she has someone's full attention—Meg smiles her rare, radiant smile, you can imagine a happy life for her, even as you tremble for her safety. Strathairn, for his part, is the most inward and intense of actors—his waters run so deep he can call up solid citizen or handsome devil at will. In Blue Car, he's both and neither, a disappointed man as eager to help as he is to lie to himself about what he's doing. Together, Meg and Auster go to the crux of the confusion that so often drives attraction between an older man and a younger woman: the desire to be parent or child spilling over into the urge to become a lover.
Time passes. As things go from bad to disastrous at home, Meg and Auster grow closer, trading confidences—she has lost a father, he a son—over brown-bag lunches as they prep for an upcoming poetry contest in Florida. It becomes impossible to track the progression of this relationship without holding one's breath for the seduction. When it comes, it's almost unbearable to watch, not because Moncrieff mines the scene for sensation—these moments are among the most convincing and least exploitive portrayals of non-consensual sex I've ever seen—but because a real relationship, albeit one based on mutual desperation, has been cheapened, the hurt compounded by the revelation of another, prior betrayal. In the outcome, Moncrieff at last allows herself and Meg a blistering moral outrage, but she also has the courage to bestow on her heroine a new strength that, in part at least, was nurtured by the very man who walked away with her trust.
Blue Car offers no sociology, no bustling social worker or sage therapist to fix everything, no speculation about the problem of troubled teens. Still, the vivid particularity of Meg's story offers a more stinging indictment than any TV movie could provide of our atomized and depleted world, and the social disarray—the families with too many pressures and not enough supports—that forces all the Megs and Lilys out there to stumble through life alone. Moncrieff is unequivocal about the responsibility of adults toward kids. Yet she offers all her characters sympathy without indulgence, and the understanding that on some level we're all doing our best, that mostly our best is far from enough—and, worse, that sometimes it is altogether too much.
* * *
The Dancer Upstairs The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich's first outing as a feature director, is a labor of love hobbled by a stubborn desire to eke a delicate love story out of a premise that all but sits up and begs to be treated as a political thriller. Adapted by British writer Nicholas Shakespeare from his own fact-based novel about the search for Shining Path guerrilla leader Abimael Guzman, the movie is nothing if not timely, though it's unclear whether American audiences fearfully awaiting reprisal for our latest military adventure will fork out for a movie about organized terror. Javier Bardem, an actor who ordinarily throbs with all manner of possibilities, comes on all stolid here as Agustin Rejas, an idealistic, Plato-reading lawyer-turned-policeman who's living a becalmed life with his beloved daughter (Marie-Anne Berganza) and dim bulb of a wife (Alexandra Lencastre). Five years after a chance meeting with the populist guerrilla leader (Abel Folk) who calls himself Ezequiel after the doomsaying sixth-century biblical prophet, Rejas is deputed to hunt him down and bring him to what passes for justice in a totalitarian regime.
The reference to the struggle between Peru's fascist regime and its even more vicious opposition in the 1980s couldn't be clearer. Malkovich and Shakespeare coyly set the movie in a generic Latin American country and graft onto the real-life melodrama of Guzman's many escapes and final capture, a romance between Rejas and his daughter's passionate ballet teacher, Yolanda (played by Italian beauty Laura Morante, who played Nanni Moretti's wife in The Son's Room). After a plodding start, The Dancer Upstairs achieves a fine, kinetic rhythm as it tracks the comeuppance of a revolution as violent and intimidating as the establishment it seeks to overthrow. Rejas' relationship with the elusive Yolanda, by contrast, feels stilted and artificially pressed into service for a treatise on the fate of goodness and love in a country stranded between totalitarianism of the left and right. Toward the end, the movie takes a turn for the preposterous when Rejas, weighing a run for president, makes a deal that surely confirms his candidacy for sainthood but casts doubt on his viability as a human being.
Blue Car was written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; produced by Peer J. Oppenheimer, Amy Sommer and David Waters; and stars Agnes Bruckner and David Straithairn; The Dancer Upstairs was directed by John Malkovich; adapted from the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare; produced by Andrs Vicente Gmez and Malkovich; and stars Javier Bardem and Laura Morante. Both films now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.
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