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High schoolers cross the line in 'L.I.E.'

Friday, October 12, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The distributor of "L.I.E." spends two pages in the movie's press materials objecting to the NC-17 rating slapped on the film. It definitely has a point, but it also suggests "this is a film that must be seen by teen-agers, accompanied by their parent, discussed by their teachers and by their clergy."


RATING: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content

STARRING: Paul Dano, Brian Cox

DIRECTOR: Michael Cuesta



Interesting idea, that. Admirable, even.

But I doubt the parent of an average teen is eager to take his or her child to a movie about a group of high schoolers who drink, smoke, cut class and break into houses for thrills. A couple of them also encounter a neighborhood fixture -- a hale, hearty fellow who is a former Marine and a secret pedophile. Oh, and one of the boys has a widowed father who cut corners on a construction job that went up in fatal flames.

"L.I.E.," shorthand for the Long Island Expressway, focuses on a lost, sensitive 15-year-old named Howie (Paul Franklin Dano). His mother was killed in a crash on the L.I.E., just like singer Harry Chapin and director Alan Pakula.

"You got the lanes going east, you got the lanes going west, and you also got the lanes going straight to hell," he muses. In which direction is his life going? At the moment, downhill. As he says of the L.I.E., a physical road and a metaphor for adolescence, "It's taken a lot of people, and I hope it doesn't get me."

Mourning his mother and largely ignored by his preoccupied father, Howie goes along with his moronic friends. He's especially taken with the gang's ringleader, Gary (Billy Kay), a charming, tattooed kid who hatches a scheme to break into a house while the occupant is having a birthday party. That puts Howie in harm's way in more ways than one; the burly white-haired man upstairs is named Big John (Brian Cox, Hannibal Lecter in "Manhunter") and he is not what he seems.

Howie eventually finds himself without Gary or his father and having to rely on the kindness of Big John. But can Big John simply be a father figure or will he succumb to his seductive, baser (and criminal) instincts and take advantage of Howie? Even if Howie might be a willing partner?

And this is where "L.I.E." becomes subversive, by suggesting Big John can be a sympathetic character. Told he should be ashamed of himself, he says, "I am. I always am." It's the "Something About Amelia" or Ted Bundy syndrome. No one wanted to believe a fictional father forced his daughter to have sex with him. Or that Bundy, a figure from real life, was a serial killer. In the end, though, this isn't Big John's story but Howie's.

"L.I.E.," directed and co-written by Michael Cuesta, throws a few too many poison darts at the board of life when it comes to the teen. And while Cuesta often was inspired by real-life characters -- when he was a kid, a Big John sort of guy dubbed "The Bloated Man" cruised around in a van -- he goes one step too far in the end. After traveling in unfamiliar territory, he resorts to a familiar act of violence.

While a movie about a 15-year-old in crisis and a pederast sounds unappetizing and unnecessary, Cuesta knows how to hold an audience. Even as you're cringing and thinking, "Don't go in there. ... Don't make that innocent offer," you're wondering where the road will take Howie. And you.

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