(director: Bette Gordon; screenwriters: from a book by Scott Bradfield “The History of Luminous Motion”/Robert Roth; cinematographer: Teodoro Maniaci; editor: Keiko Deguchi; music: Lesley Barber; cast: Eric Lloyd (Phillip), Deborah Kara Unger (Margaret, Phillip’s Mom), Terry Kinney (Pedro), James Berland (Rodney), Paz De La Huerta (Beatrice), Jamey Sheridan (Dad), June Stein (Ethel), Bruce MacVittie (Norman), Jed Holdren (Stranger); Runtime: 94; Artistic License Films; 1998)
“It plays like a strange nightmarish odyssey…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Bette Gordon’s disturbing black comedy/tragedy, adapted by screenwriter Robert Roth from a book by Scott Bradfield “The History of Luminous Motion,” begins with a voice-over saying “My childhood seems like a ghost town. . . . When I look back I know my memory is hopelessly flawed, tangled with my imagination.” That was mouthed by the emotionally disturbed 10-year-old Phillip (Eric Lloyd) who suffers from hallucinations. He looks back upon his recent past and says how difficult it is to determine what was real and what was something else about his childhood. The film is told entirely from his viewpoint which makes the murky story even more murky, since he is too young to understand the fancy concepts he freely mouths. His tale is a complicated case study of his inner workings. He’s a precocious, chubby, cherubic looking child who attempts to explain his sexually motivated parasitic relationship with his beautiful but slutty mom. But because of his lack of authority to convincingly tell about what he doesn’t understand, the film unduly suffers.
It plays like a strange nightmarish odyssey over a landscape that is filled with dark psychological bumps in the road. Phillip is kept in a tizzy by being kept in constant motion with his nomadic, alcoholic, selfish mother, Margaret (Deborah Kara Unger), who is on the road turning tricks in one-night stands and further supporting her family by stealing her clients’ belongings before fleeing from their motel room. The kid uses the car time in their old Impala, that is packed with science textbooks and decorated with glass figurines hanging from the inside top, to teach himself science. Phillip is self-motivated to learn and is self-absorbed like his mother, which will later on prove to be what makes him have to go on his own path when his mother realizes she only cares about herself and has no business being a mother. According to him, at the time of their travels, “Only two things mattered — being with my mom and being in motion.”
The kid finds this nomadic lifestyle idyllic, as he grows up without discipline. The film moves into lyrical territory at the symbiotic relationship established between the tragic mother searching for a security blanket and the son who can only see the good side of his mother and is blind to her mental breakdown and lack of will power to find happiness. They form a relationship charged with an electricity that defies moral boundaries and is based on an unhealthy dependence on each other for support.
After a car crash where Phillip was driving because his mother was too drunk, they reside with the guy who got them a tow truck, a Hackensack, New Jersey, carpenter. He’s a kindly former hardware store owner, Pedro (Terry Kinney), who is given that name by friends because he played some baseball in Mexico as a young man. While living with Pedro, Phillip seems confused as he receives letters and phone calls from his wealthy businessman dad (Jamey Sheridan) urging him to kill Pedro. The kid doesn’t like Pedro because he has come between him and his mother by stopping their nomadic existence. The kid’s father (Jamey Sheridan) appears as a Hamlet-like apparition at this point, but will appear later in a real way to rescue the two from themselves and make them a nuclear family again.
Moving to Staten Island because either Pedro is dead or because the living arrangement didn’t work out, as it was never made too clear if Pedro was actually killed by Phillip or if that was only a wishful fantasy. In any case, Phillip latches on to two Staten Island neighborhood teens who have serious problems of their own. Rodney (Berland) is a disturbed youngster with an inward rage at society, who blames his confusion toward women on his inept mother (Stein). She doesn’t have the ability to control his temper tantrums and his antisocial activities such as being a burglar. The other teen is Beatrice (Paz De La Huerta), who spews out her extreme women’s lib philosophy that males are twisted beings trying to pervert things whenever they can. Her most persuasive argument is that beauty is a term invented by capitalism — something men made up to make money by selling beauty products such as cosmetics and panties.
The film is chock full of concepts and delicious sidetracks it goes off on, but it failed to hold my interest as a solid drama. There was something icy, as the film lost me in all its confusion about what was real and what was fantasy. I felt a motion sickness while trying to keep up with the bumpy story. I also thought the kid was severely disturbed and should have been under the care of a shrink from the onset, while the mother should be doing time in jail. That all the arty-farty themes were too remote from the baser nature of the story. The psycho-sexual landscape presented is difficult to fully absorb because the story does not make up its mind whether Phillip really kills Pedro and then tries to poison his father, or if this is only a head trip. Some films can handle this fantasy theme better than others. The film couldn’t be carried by the kid’s unaffecting and stilted performance, and he was the one relied on to pull it off. What made his inadequate performance seem more damaging, was in contrast Unger’s brilliantly luminous, erotic and vapid one.
As the credits roll by at the end, the raspy world-weary voice of Tom Waits belts out the song “Yesterday is Here” and the film fades disarmingly into the night, with what goes for a happy ending of Phillip getting his needed psychological help and attending a good school. So what does it all mean? Don’t ask me, I’m too confused.
REVIEWED ON 11/11/2001 GRADE: C +