.(director/writer: Michael Cuesta; screenwriters: Stephen M. Ryder/Gerald Cuesta; cinematographer: Romeo Tirone; editors: Eric Carlson/; music: Pierre Földes; cast: Brian Cox (Big John Harrigan), Paul Franklin Dano (Howie Blitzer), Billy Kay (Gary Terrio), Bruce Altman (Marty Blitzer), James Costa (Kevin Cole), Tony Michael Donnelly (Brian), Adam LeFevre (Marty’s lawyer), Walter Masterson (Scott), Marcia DeBonis (Guidance counselor); Runtime: 97; New Yorker Films; 2001)
“There were no breakthroughs.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E. — Long Island Expressway — feels like other indie troubled suburban teen films I have recently seen. In its bleak moments it reminds me most of Trans and the inner angst both troubled youths shared. But there is not only a coming-of-age story, a looking for poppa to act like one, but the pretty virgin blond hero is confronted by a smooth middle-aged predator, Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox-played Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”), offering him homosexual love and a chance to be added to the collection of boys he successfully lured.
The 15-year-old protagonist trying to discover who he is, is Howie Blitzer (Dano). In a voiceover to open the film, Howie mentions how he misses his mother who recently died in a car crash on the L.I. E.. Howie’s shady building construction owner father is distant, more interested in being with his new lady friend, but plies him with material things. This leaves Howie, a bright boy who is interested in poetry, with no one around to give him guidance. In school the well-intentioned guidance counselor makes a futile effort to reach him, but she’s too gooey. Again, as in most of the teen films I have seen, the institutions fail the ones they should be helping.
Howie muses while dangling on one foot from the overhead guard rail on the Long Island Expressway, that not only his mother died there but famous people such as singer-songwriter Harry Chapin and movie director Alan J. Pakula. He tells us the expressway “has taken a lot of people and I hope it doesn’t get me. There are lanes going east, lanes going west, and lanes going straight to hell.” When he’s not reciting poetry and skipping school, he’s hanging out with three other troublesome youths who offer him their friendship if he goes along with their house robbery schemes. His best friend Gary (Billy Kay) is heavily tattooed and body pierced, and is streetwise and more crafty than Howie. He’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who hustles men to earn some bread. One of the men he’s involved with is Big John, who is an ex-marine and a former government official overseas. He’s respected in the community by both the police and the school system as a patriot and is secretly living with a young boy Scotty in his mansion-like house. Gary talks Howie into robbing his house while he’s having a party upstairs and singing Irish songs, but things go wrong when Howie trips and Big John hearing the noise rushes downstairs to grab a piece of Howie’s jeans before he escapes. Big John has a good time sniffing that part of the jeans since it came from the rear end.
Gary’s plan is to escape his futile life on Long Island and runaway to Los Angeles. To do this he needs dough, and the two valuable guns from Big John’s collection he just stole should do fine. But Big John sniffs out that it was Gary behind this robbery and when he confronts him, Gary drops a dime on Howie.
Howie sneaks into Gary’s rundown cottage to steal back the guns to return to Big John. Meanwhile Big John begins to seduce Howie and sadly becomes the only one who can connect with the disheartened kid. When Howie recites Walt Whitman to him in his shiny orange Cutlass and Big John recognizes the poem, the man-boy bond begins in earnest. This comes at a time when Howie’s dad is arrested by the FBI for a housing scandal and is sent immediately to federal prison. The kid thinks his dad abandoned him, even though his arrest is all over the TV and newspapers.
The film had no clue at where it wanted to go with this risky material and settled for the easy moralistic way out, with a burst of violence on one of those expressway exits where young male prostitutes solicit male riders.
The story itself seemed preposterous, as there were holes in it throughout larger than the potholes on the L. I. E.. The metaphor of the L.I.E. seemed more heavy-handed than enlightening. But Paul Franklin Dano seemed like a real kid in search of his identity and Brian Cox made for a convincing pedophile. Other than being an entertaining film and one that had an underlying rawness, there were no breakthroughs.
REVIEWED ON 6/7/2002 GRADE: B