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BLUE CAR(director/writer: Karen Moncrieff; cinematographer: Rob Sweeney; editor: Toby Yates; music: Adam Gorgoni; cast: David Strathairn (Auster), Agnes Bruckner (Meg), Margaret Colin (Diane), A. J. Buckley (Pat), Regan Arnold (Lily), Frances Fisher (Delia), Sarah Buehler (Georgia); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Peer J. Oppenheimer/Amy Sommer/David Waters; Miramax Films; 2002)
Cuts both ways: the poetry and the acting were hot, the story and the cinematography were not so hot.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Former television actress turned writer-director, Northwestern University grad Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car is an old-fashioned weepy woman’s pic but garbed in modern dress and made over as a bitter-sweet coming-of-age tale. The people at Sundance loved it. Instead of an adult woman battling against the patriarchal world, it’s a battling wispy high school senior coed named Megan (Agnes Bruckner). She writes poetry as a means of combating the cold world, but fails miserably to connect with her peers in a meaningful relationship.

We hear the aspiring poetess read her “Blue Car” poem with the stinging refrain “A rusty chair keeps your place in the lawn,” as we hear it’s a poem about how her father suddenly left the family in his blue car. During his lunch periods a dedicated high school teacher tutors Meg, and presses her to dig deeper to find the meaning of her words.

Things are rough at Meg’s Ohio home. Dad has split without keeping contact or anteing up with his child support payments. Hard-working, self-absorbed, absentee and controlling mom Diane (Margaret Colin) is a bundle to handle. The stressed-out mom is not there for Meg when she needs emotional support as she works long hours at a low paying job, and on top of that attends night school to advance her career. So the pretty, vulnerable, bright, tormented and insecure girl is counseled by smug high school English teacher Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), as he takes on the role of surrogate dad. He plays the role of the all-knowing godlike figure, and offers his pearls of wisdom in the manner of a Freudian who dishes out his therapy by only posing questions. Auster’s picture perfect marriage to his childhood sweetheart, the intellectually gifted Delia, has lost its luster long ago and the teacher’s dreams of writing the great novel have become unfulfilled dreams that he can’t admit have evaporated without feeling despondent and lost. The pretentious teach fronts to Meg that he’s still writing the great novel after a decade, but when asked to read from it he cribs what Rilke wrote and pretends those are his words.

The plot revolves around a national poetry contest for a college scholarship, that brings teach and his prize winning student together during spring break in Florida. Teach is there to judge the contest, and has brought his unhappy wife and unresponsive teenage son to frolic in the beach. Meg has had a rougher time at home than usual before the trip, as her pesky little sister Lily tries to get attention by an episode of self-mutilation and by going on a hunger strike. This turns out to be a psychotic death wish trip that requires medical treatment and later a trip to the psychiatric ward. Also, mom sees red when the administrative job her suitor led her to believe was hers does not materialize, and she takes her disappointment out on Meg. The last straw comes when Meg is duped by her girlfriend Georgia’s fast-talking criminal brother into stealing drugs from a pharmacy, as the smoothie betrays her. Meg also resorts to shoplifting, as she tries desperately to score money for her dream trip. She has placed so much importance on the contest, that she has lost track of her real life.

Florida becomes the right spot for teach to show his fangs, as he takes advantage of his innocent and adoring protégé by coming on to her with some inappropriate sexual moves. Both characters are filled with gloom and doom, but the spirited Meg is a true believer in the healing power of poetry and updates her “Blue Car” poem for the contest with dollops of fresh angst after she realizes her dream is impossible. Teach keeps his godlike pose, but his emptiness and failed life has been exposed–he is just not capable of giving up his phony life.

The 17-year-old Agnes Bruckner hits the right chords, as she sparkles as a future Sylvia Plath who somehow never seems to read any of the great poets but instead whips up her one poem with additional growing pains and responds to her budding sexuality in an unexpected way. David Strathairn gives a rich nuanced performance as the passionate book lover, whose inner demons get the best of him despite showing that he’s not a complete monster–he really wants to help Meg. It was painful to watch him maneuver the minor. But the good actor that he is, his villainy makes us saddened that such a potentially inspiring teacher is only a shell of a man who can’t honestly express how he feels about himself.

This small film was surprisingly effective in expressing its love for literature and the foibles of a weak but humanistic man. But that last scene of Meg reading her hard-hitting updated poem and afterwards walking out of the auditorium before the contest ended to throw her poem in the ocean, smacked of risible melodramatics and made me want to split in my blue Honda. But Blue Car, in the end, manages to get back on the road. It’s a film that cuts both ways: the poetry and the acting were hot, the story and the cinematography were not so hot.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”