Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Written by: Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta, & Gerald Cuesta
Starring: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman, and Billy Kay
Watching L.I.E. reminds you of what the American Independent Cinema first set out to do; it’s of full moral ambiguity within a premise that would never in a million years be green-lit by a Hollywood studio. Looking at recent indie fluff like Juno or any of its brightly colored siblings makes the often edgy facade of independent movies seem like they’re losing touch, never mind the quality.
L.I.E. stars Paul Dano in what is still his most daring role. His excellent performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood almost seem safe next to his role as Howie, a gay, misguided 15-year-old who becomes romantically entangled with a much, much older man. If Dano is daring, than Brian Cox is fearless on an almost unparalleled level as that older man.
Director Michael Cuesta takes several queues straight out of Gus van Sant’s early playbook, drawing crucial inspiration from films like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. The enhanced color palette heightened the enhanced realism of Idaho, but Cuesta keeps this story grounded in reality.
Visuals are not the only thing borrowed from Van Sant’s films. Howie as a sensitive teenager would be right at home in almost any of that director’s other movies. His sense of discomfort in this one is intended, though. Dano plays him perfectly, as someone who is constantly rushed, as if he’s always running away, which he is. Howie collects father figures because after his mother’s death, his crook of a dad is even more useless.
We get a sense at the beginning of the movie that Howie hangs out with his friend Gary not just because he’s attracted to him, but because he has found a safe way to lash out against the society where he can’t belong and the dad who can barely look at him.
L.I.E. stands for “Long Island Expressway,” which is not as crucial to the movie as you’d think. It is the road where Howie lost his mother, and he hovers over it while balancing on a railway at the beginning, but that’s when you still think this will be about him coping with that loss and not a budding father figure relationship.
If Howie collects father figures, then Cox’s Big John collects sons. There’s no easy way into the mind of Big John, both because Cox portrays him as both a protector and predator and because the writers wisely do away with explaining a lot about him.
Harold and Maude is viewed as a somewhat charming love story by its cult following, and that age gap is much, much bigger than the one between these characters. Harold’s age is not specifically stated, but he appears older than Howie does here. One might directly try to play the gay aspect of the relationship, but this movie is less charming because it’s not supposed to be charming.
The complicated emotions and the characters that have them are exactly what makes L.I.E. a product made outside Hollywood. There are no easy answers and moments of charm are found few and far between the moments of emtional anguish and violent teen outbursts.
Thankfully, Cuesta shies away from explicit sexual encounters. They would not have added anything but controversy. Without them, viewers are forced to confront the film more head-on and see it more as a serious work than a provocation.
Adolescents almost never have it easy in “coming of age stories,” and L.I.E. is no exception. Though it would be refreshing to confront a gay character who did not have father issues, this movie still has a lot to say about the homo-erotic undertones in male adolescent friendships but it also quietly plays off that fear that we will be attracted to someone like our parents.
Movies can rarely be summed up in one shot, but L.I.E. comes pretty close. You see Howie walking peacefully on the side of the road surrounded by trees. Then, the vintage orange cruiser Big John drives rounds the corner. At this point he’s still a duke of hazard to the audience. It’s not until right after, when he teaches Howie how to drive, that Cuesta and Cox wisely show us that there is always more to somebody than the car they drive and the company they keep.