On the basis of recent evidence, Long Island is a location that inspires the best in independent filmmakers. In 1997, in his first feature, Richard Kwietniowski gave us “Love and Death on Long Island,” a marvelously whimsical and touching story of a reclusive British writer who travels to New York to meet the young American actor with whom he’s become obsessed: the subtle, wryly observant film also showcased a flawlessly controlled performance from John Hurt, and a surprisingly strong one from Jason Priestley as well. Now Michael Cuesta, a commercials director, makes his debut with an extraordinarily vivid and perceptive tale of a young Long Island boy, bereft of his mother and largely ignored by his dad, who’s drawn into crime (and perhaps something more) by a delinquent school buddy and, as a result, comes into contact with a neighborhood pedophile. And it too showcases two remarkable performances, from Brian Cox and Paul Franklin Dano. The result is an audacious film that will undoubtedly be controversial, on subject matter that some viewers will instinctively shun, and with a take on it that some may judge abhorrent; but it’s so brilliantly constructed and masterfully executed–one plot point aside–that it becomes almost a model of what’s best in American independent cinema.
The central figure in “L.I.E.”–a title which stands for “Long Island Expressway,” which represents a passage that can lead to either escape or destruction (the metaphor, to tell the truth, is a trifle heavy)–is Howie Blitzer (Dano), a 15-year old from a privileged background who nonetheless feels abandoned and alone: his mother was recently killed in a car crash on the title road, and his father (Bruce Altman) shows more interest in his new girlfriend and an ongoing investigation of his shady business practices than in his son. It’s no surprise that Howie takes up with a gang led by Gary (Billy Kay), a brash, cocky kid from a poor family who directs his cohorts in house-breakings, but who also evinces a physical interest in Howie that has a homoerotic element. (One senses that in some inchoate fashion, Howie reciprocates.) In a particularly dangerous score, however, Gary cajoles Howie into helping him rob a prominent fellow, Big John (Brian Cox), and the two are nearly caught in the act. John tracks Howie down and demands the return of his property, but Gary’s already fled to California, leaving Howie in the lurch (and having stolen money from the kid’s dad to finance the trip, too). Howie has to deal with John on his own, and it soon becomes apparent that the man, a gregarious character who’s an ex-spy and a local celebrity, had previously been involved with Gary sexually (as, we learn, have lots of others). The question is how he’s going to treat Howie, especially after the boy’s father is arrested and he’s left completely alone. It’s here that the picture will probably earn the wrath of some viewers, because the twist is that far from taking advantage of the situation, John emerges not as simply a monster but instead as a complex and even sympathetic character, whose interest in Howie becomes more paternal than sexual, and who helps the boy survive what could have been a disastrous turning-point in his life. (The shaded characterization is even more unsettling than the portrait of the pederast that Dylan Baker and Todd Solondz drew in 1998’s very different but equally masterful “Happiness”–another picture that some viewers, even usually discerning ones, were almost unable to tolerate.)
“L.I.E.” can be described as a sort of modern “Oliver Twist” story mixed with a dose of a gender-altered “Lolita,” and the amazing thing is that it’s so nuanced and skillfully crafted that such exalted comparisons seem apt. The writing is unusually perceptive, the handling of the potentially explosive theme discreet and delicate, and the direction assured and well-gauged. For the most part the performances are outstanding as well. Cox is simply astonishing as Big John; as written the character is bigger than life–voluble, outlandish, even overwhelming–but Cox adds to it an undercurrent of sadness, even self-loathing, that’s quite remarkable. Dano matches him with a turn that’s a perfect amalgam of naivete, pain, discovery, perception and humor; it marks him as a young actor definitely to watch. And Billy Kay is equally superb as the brash, lascivious Gary; if the other acting weren’t so fine, you’d call him a scene-stealer, but in this case he has to share the applause. James Costa and Tony Donnelly also shine in brief scenes as two other members of Gary’s “gang”–engaging in banter that shows just how empty the conversation in a movie like “Kids” was. Only Altman and Walter Masterson, as Big John’s live-in boyfriend who feels threatened by the man’s interest in Howie, fail to reach the highest level; the former comes on a bit too strong, and the latter not quite strong enough. Masterson’s character also figures in the script’s one really questionable plot turn, at the very end–a violent surprise that can be defended as a necessary completion of Howie’s isolation but comes across more as a dramatic capitulation to audience expectations about how a figure such as Big John has to pay for what he is. But Nabokov didn’t allow Humbert (or Quilty) to live happily ever after, either, so screenwriters Cuesta, his brother Gerald and Stephen M. Ryder are in good company in the tack they take.
Whatever one’s attitude about the denouement, in any event, “L.I.E.” remains a potent and powerful film that can’t help but have a strong emotional impact. Provocative but not exploitative, moving but not maudlin, it’s a striking combination of coming-of-age story and cautionary tale that maintains its authenticity and balance when it might easily have run totally off the rails. At a time when Hollywood pictures have become little better than assembly-line products, it’s films like Cuesta’s that keep alive the hope for real daring, imagination and artistry in American cinema.