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'Blue Car'

A nice ride to maturity

Friday, July 18, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The teacher feature is a cinematic staple that has provided tour de force roles to the likes of Robin Williams, Sidney Poitier, John Housman. In film and life alike, you won't find a better spotlight than the one that shines on you in front of a classroom.

"Blue Car"

RATING: R for adult sexual themes
STARRING: David Strathairn, Agnes Bruckner
DIRECTOR: Karen Moncrieff


"Blue Car," however, is no pedagogical character study. First-time writer-director Karen Moncrieff is far more interested in the student (Agnes Bruckner) than in the teacher (David Strathairn). The teenage girl is woefully withdrawn, alienated by her dysfunctional single-mother-from-hell (Margaret Colin) and forced to deal with a suicidal little sister.

Only Strathairn speaks to her -- literally and poetically -- in English class, praising the painful verses she wrote on seeing her father leave her family in his blue car. Why doesn't she enter the big poetry competition coming up in Florida? She hasn't the confidence.

He will give it to her. Along with the understanding and affection she craves. Theirs is a live-poets society with an exclusive membership of two. Could it get out of control?

Strathairn is an acutely sensitive, minimalist actor with a history of intelligent roles to his credit ("Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Silkwood," "Eight Men Out," "City of Hope," "L.A. Confidential"). He looks and acts somewhat like Tony Perkins -- all nuance, almost to a fault.

Equally restrained but thankfully more luminous is newcomer Bruckner, who turns in an excellent performance. Colin does a fine job as the problematic mom, and the show is virtually stolen by fab Frances Fisher as Strathairn's alcoholic wife.

Director Moncrieff crafts a nice coming-of-age story (culminating in the heroine's midnight cowgirl bus trip to Florida) but finally gives in to some weepy sentimentality. Bottom line: This is a soap -- but a rather good one.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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