Category Archives: Archived Movies

BLUE CAR

There’s an earnestness to Karen Moncrieff’s debut feature that’s not unlike what one would expect in a Lifetime telefilm, and the plot, focusing on domestic distress, echoes the network soap operas on which both the writer-director and the star appeared in the past: the basic trajectory (especially a turn it takes toward the close) is very familiar. But “Blue Car” nonetheless carries considerable punch; like last year’s “Swimming,” it’s one of the rare female coming-of-age stories in which the overall sense of authenticity more than compensates for the narrative lapses. When compared to a studio effort to mine similar territory (like “White Oleander,” for example), its sensitivity and honesty are all the more impressive.

Agnes Bruckner plays Meg, a teen who lives with her mother Diane (Margaret Colin) and younger sister Lily (Regan Arnold). She and her sibling are haunted by the departure of their father, and Diane’s desperate, apparently hopeless efforts to better herself place a great deal of the household burdens on her. Neither she nor her mother can really deal with the withdrawn Lily, whose pain and longing for a restored family are palpable, but Meg experiences some relief by writing poetry in a class presided over by the demanding but supportive Mr. Auster (David Strathairn); her verse is colored by the image of the car in which her dad departed. The crux of the plot comes when Meg, under Auster’s increasingly close direction, wins a local poetry contest that offers her the opportunity to go to a national competition in Florida. Her effort to get there will prove tumultuous, however, and domestic tragedy will intervene as well. The film closes with her trip south, during which her relationship with Auster veers in a direction that’s all too predictable. But it’s handled in a fashion more subdued that usual; thanks to the nuances that Bruckner and Strathairn bring to the material, even the inevitable public confrontation between the characters carries conviction.

It’s the treatment, in fact, that rescues “Blue Car” as a whole from the dangers of bathos and mawkishness. On the one hand, Moncrieff handles episodes that could easily have gone terribly awry with a delicate touch; in less assured hands, for example, the culmination of Lily’s depression might have been crudely embarrassing. But her skill is matched by the acting. Bruckner delivers a performance that seems way beyond her years; she captures both Meg’s strength and her vulnerability unerringly. Strathairn is equally fine, etching a portrait of a man who sees in his student a promise he himself never fulfilled—and whose weakness of character ultimately reveals itself. Colin and Arnold deliver strong support. Only Frances Fisher, as Auster’s brittle, alcoholic wife, strikes too melodramatic a note. The technical side of the film is simple and straightforward, which has the benefit of keeping attention on the actors—where it belongs.

“Blue Car” is the sort of screenplay that could easily have invited a crude, heavy-handed approach. But thanks to Moncrieff’s sensitivity and her outstanding cast, it transcends its roots and emerges as a touching, incisive portrait of a young girl whose potential is threatened by the accident of her birth and the problems of her parents.

MANIC

Jordan Melamed’s debut feature will undoubtedly be described by lots of critics as a juvenile version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and there’s something to that: it’s set in a ward for disturbed teens, the new arrival is a fellow who challenges the system, and another patient is even a Native American. But you could make an equally strong case that “Manic” is really just a bleaker variant of “The Breakfast Club,” in which a bunch of troubled youngsters bond when they’re forced to deal with one another in confinement; it even has a “communal dance” sequence, though in this case it’s a destructive rave-like rampage to the heaviest of metal rather than a music-video routine to “We Are Not Alone.” These kids, moreover, aren’t presided over by a nasty teacher but rather by a sympathetic doctor. Maybe “One Flew Over the Breakfast Club” would be a good compromise.

“Manic” begins with the admission of cocky, highly charged Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to a hospital facility after he’s brutally attacked a schoolmate with a baseball bat. He joins a group of patients under the care of kind, concerned Dr. Monroe (Don Cheadle). The others include Chad (co-scripter Michael Bacall), whose mood swings can be controlled only by meds he hates to take; Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), a pretty brunette whose mousiness alternates with bouts of screaming agony; Sara (Sara Rivas), a Goth gal; Kenny (Cody Lightning), a youthful child molester; and Mike (Eldon Henson), a hulking bully. Lyle comes to serve as the nucleus around whom the others circle. He and Chad become friends, dreaming about going off to Amsterdam and living a life of freedom there; he and Tracy become increasingly interested in one another; he befriends the sad, tormented Kenny (his roommate); he has continuous run-ins with Mike; and he becomes the main object of Monroe’s therapeutic efforts. The interconnections are rather contrived and formulaic, and the script takes several turns that aren’t terribly plausible (the kids are apparently allowed to wander to and from their rooms at will, even at night, and when Lyle determines to visit Kenny after he’s been transferred to another ward, he has no trouble making his way there unnoticed; meanwhile the older, more deeply disturbed patients we occasionally glimpse across a fence seem more like caricatures). When revelations arrive, moreover–the reason behind Lyle’s rage, the background to Kenny’s emotional problem–they come across as awfully pat. The picture is made to seem less obvious, however, by the gritty atmosphere, the happily ambiguous close, and the strong acting. Gordon-Levitt, who played the geeky high-schooler on TV’s “Third Rock from the Sun,” is quite simply a revelation: his anger and resentment seem genuine. Bacall is almost as fine, and if the other youngsters don’t match them, it’s largely because their roles aren’t nearly as complex. Among the adults, Cheadle strikes a dignified, Poitiersque pose convincingly.

Unhappily, the virtues of “Manic” are undermined by Melamed’s direction and Nick Hay’s high-definition video photography, which take the title much too literally. If you’ve ever been bothered by the hand-held camerawork Woody Allen has sometimes used, be prepared to hold onto the armrests here; the jumpiness of the shots is so extreme, and so pervasive, that anybody who suffers from motion sickness would be well advised to take a dose of your favorite medication before undertaking to sit through it. The style is designed, of course, to accentuate the inner turmoil of the adolescent characters, but over the course of a hundred minutes it becomes less bracing than irritating.

So while, thanks mostly to its young leads, “Manic” has flashes of insight and power, in the end the predictable structure and an overly frenetic visual approach take a heavy toll.