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Anthony M. Bertram
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Joseph Andrew Schneider,
Fifteen-year-old Howie loses just about everything and everyone in the space of a single week, but ends up finding himself in the process. His mother has just died. His father, a building contractor, can barely keep tabs on his young girlfriend, let alone his own son. Thusly, the teen must navigate his adolescence virtually unsupervised. Floating towards an ill-behaved existence, Howie and his crowd begin robbing houses in the middle-class neighborhoods off the Long Island Expressway. Together, he and his best friend Gary break into a place belonging to an old guy named Big John, a local man who is a respected pillar of the community. When Big John fingers Gary for the crime, Howie learns that his pal has been leading a secret, dangerous but also alluring double life. Subsequently, we also discover that Big John has secrets of his own. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
L.I.E. Long Island Expressway. You got the lanes going east, and you got the lanes going west. And you also got the lanes going straight to hell. Lot of people died on it. Harry Chapin, Alan Pakula, the movie director. You probably heard of them. But you never heard of Sylvia Blitzer, my mom. She died on a crash on Exit 52. I really miss her. It's taken a lot of people and I hope it doesn't get me.
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On the Long Island Expressway, Howie says, "You got your lanes going east, you got your lanes going west, and you got your lanes going straight to hell". Perched on a barrier above the Long Island Expressway ready to jump, 15 year old Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) tells us that the L.I.E. has claimed many lives including folk singer Harry Chapin, film director Alan J. Pakula, and Howie's mother in a recent car crash. Now scared and alone, emotionally distant from his sleazy, corrupt father, and having fallen in with a gang of thieves and male prostitutes, Howie is poised to become the next victim of the Expressway.
L.I.E. is the coming of age story of a boy who must quickly develop resiliency to cope with the loss of the things closest to him; his mother to the L.I.E., his father to the criminal justice system, and his best friend Gary to the lure of California. More real than American Beauty, more honest than Ghost World, less sleazy than Kids or Happiness, L.I.E. is a tender and thoughtful, often funny, examination of the lives of suburban teens who are without guidance or adult role models and who must develop inner strength simply in order to survive.
Like taking drugs to numb the pain of their boredom and loneliness, Howie, his friend Gary, and a few others have been robbing the expensive houses of their Long Island neighbors just for the excitement of seeing how much they can get away with. One of their escapades takes them to the house of Big John Harrigan (brilliantly performed by Scottish actor Brian Cox), a macho ex-marine well known in the neighborhood as a chickenhawk (for those uninitiated, an individual with a predilection for sex with young men). This encounter is a turning point for young Howie.
Howie and Big John develop a relationship which, while the possibility of man-boy sex is clearly implied, is not threatening or exploitative, but provides Howie with the substitute father-figure he so desperately needs. In portraying Big John, first time director, Michael Cuesta resists moralizing and courageously defies stereotyping. (NOTE: in reality, the sexual predator is more likely to be an inconspicuous business or professional man who uses sex in a furtive manner to satisfy some unfilled need, not the flamboyant, in-your-face sleaze ball that Big John represents).
Paul Franklin Dano as Howie completely captures the confusion and neediness of a lonely teen trying to discover who he is, and he is very reminiscent of a young River Phoenix. Howie comes alive as an immature, lonely, and sexually confused teen, yet a sensitive and intelligent individual who writes poetry to give voice to his loneliness. Howie startles Big John with his knowledge of Chagall and quotes this Walt Whitman strain from Leaves of Grass to him while riding in his car:
"Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me, Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there, in the night, By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon, The messenger there arous'd-the fire, the sweet hell within, The unknown want, the destiny of me."
It is uncertain until the end whether Howie will succumb to the forces closing in on him or develop the inner strength to cope with his loss.
This movie has caused some consternation in some quarters because it shows a sexual predator as a complex human being with feelings. Cuesta does not advocate man-boy relationships but does show that these relationships can often be based on mutual need, something some may overlook when screaming "sexual abuse". Cuesta forces us to look at the multi-leveled components of the relationship, both the predator and the protector, the manipulator and the manipulated. The filmmaker presents the older man as he is, an exploiter with layers of self-hatred and shame, but also as a human being, capable of warmth and love. At the end, if nothing else, I sensed that Howie through his pit stop relationship with Big John was older, wiser, and much more capable of dealing with his problems.
Despite some poorly drawn characters (his father in particular is a caricature) and an oversimplified ending that would have been better left on the cutting room floor, I truly loved this film and would recommend it highly.
Stupidly rated NC-17, L.I.E. is a film that should be seen by both teenagers and their parents.
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