American Ugly

L.I.E. peeps on the shadier side of suburbia

From Happiness and Ghost World to American Beauty and The Ice Storm, a spate of recent films has let us peek at the perversions lurking behind suburbia's steam-cleaned draperies. But the approach of first-time director Michael Cuesta is different: He doesn't wax poetic about suburban homogeneity, or cop a satirical and/or gravely moralizing tone. Rather, the director takes his specific Long Island milieu at face value--mostly because he grew up near the Long Island Expressway's exit 52. He uses his old neighborhood to great effect, homing in on details: the diners, the accents, the empty, semi-wild places for boys to roam, and a gamut of distinct homes (an aging, long-ago updated colonial, a sterile, "soft contemporary" showplace, a shabby postwar ranch). The suburbs here are used in the same way Woody Allen uses New York City: to root a story in a sense of place.

Still, there's a problem with the titular roadway that roars through it all. Howie, L.I.E.'s 15-year-old protagonist, muses that the Long Island Expressway has lanes going east, west, and "straight to hell." But even with numerous stylized interludes of speeding cars, Cuesta doesn't seem sure where this particular fixture of Long Island life is supposed to take his film.

It does help set the scene, as the site of Howie's mother's recent death in a car crash, and the boy's own suicidal contemplations. But as an overarching metaphor, the L.I.E.--its straightforwardness, unceasing hum, and "east-west-hell" trajectories--just doesn't jibe with the complexity of the movie's characters. In fact, Cuesta's refusal to simplify (or moralize) pedophilia earned L.I.E. an NC-17 rating, which was wisely parlayed into a raft of publicity (it's worth noting, however, that the much-lauded American Beauty received an R rating, despite its lead character's graphic obsession with female jailbait). The film got branded as such not because it resorts to overt sexuality--it doesn't--but because it dares to humanize the kind of monster feared especially by anyone who has kids. That's just one of the disturbing conflicts the movie brings forth: For instance, comic relief here is meager, but the minor character who is its main source also happens to be having intercourse with his sister.

And yet L.I.E. doesn't flaunt the forehead-slapping outrageousness of Happiness. Despite a few implausible moments, it gets under your skin because of its general realism--and lack of sentimentality. Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) is still grieving over his mother and getting no support from his affluent father (Bruce Altman), who seems completely preoccupied with his teeth, his hair, his weight--and boffing his new girlfriend. (But he'll use his dead wife as a convenient excuse or a plea for sympathy.) So it's no surprise when the kid falls in with tattooed bad-boy Gary (Billy Kay) and his comrades, whose hobby is burglarizing neighborhood homes. Cultivating a special bond with Howie, one tinged with homoeroticism, Gary lets Howie in on his prize heist so they can run off to California together. The pair rob the home of Big John (Brian Cox), but not without almost being caught. And through some detective work of his own, Big John finds his way to Howie.

L.I.E. never redeems Howie's father--if there's a cartoonish monster here, he's it--but in its approach to Big John, it constantly seesaws between humanism and depravity. Cox, who played a pre-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, is fully up to a challenge. Like the closeted queer-next-door in American Beauty, Big John is an ex-military man, and his gregarious ways with local authority figures (the high school dean, the cops) indicate a seemingly respectable life. But the "BJ" vanity plates on his orange muscle car must represent more than his initials to the teenagers who offer themselves up at a cruising spot just off the L.I.E. He has tawdry fleeting encounters with them, and he also takes in wayward boys for extended stays at his home, whose musty, wood-paneled, shag-carpeted interiors, enhanced by garish, David Lynch-like lighting, scream "bachelor's lair."

Big John is at his most terrifying while searching for Howie, sniffing the fabric torn from the boy's jeans, or quietly yet proudly professing his fellatio skills. He also exhibits a genuine fatherly concern, collecting Howie from the police station, encouraging his literary aspirations, showing him how to drive. And his menace is undermined considerably by a mother who butts in at critical moments to leave embarrassing messages via answering machine.

Howie also takes Big John down a notch--disarms him, really. At first, this scrawny, sullen teen seems uninterestingly average, another kid blessed with material goods but bereft of character. But in putting its young protagonist through a series of challenges--his mother's death, his attraction to Gary, abandonment by both his dad and Gary, and not least, of course, involvement with Big John--L.I.E. shows Howie starting to grow into himself.

His disgust for and fear of Big John alternate with an almost exhilarating sense of the sexual power he holds over the old man: His recital of a Walt Whitman poem stuns Big John, who asks, "Are you trying to seduce me?" Here, as in other scenes, Howie's black eyes (one from his dad and the other from a classmate) become almost eroticized, a kind of macho makeup complementing his double-pierced ear and macramé necklace. Once he steps up to bat, he surprises Big John at his own game--catching the old man, for instance, as he tries to pass off a Casablanca line as his own. For his part, Big John finds himself relating to the boy as a human being, or even a son, rather than a lust object.

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