15 August 2003 | Ali_John_Catterall
A minor modern classic
'I needed to make a movie that stayed with people emotionally and psychologically' says L.I.E. director Michael Cuesta. The result, his debut, bears all the hallmarks of a quietly assured, minor modern classic. As Brian Cox, who plays L.I.E's big-hearted pederast 'Big John' Harrigan, says, 'It's old-fashioned in many ways, a film that takes its time and doesn't suffer from MTV jump-cutting'. Such subtleties cut no slack with US censors, who saddled it with a damaging and unsuccessfully appealed NC-17 rating. A knee-jerk reaction, its distributors argued, 'to a small grab-bag of wholly misunderstood moments.infinitely less graphic and gratuitous than many dozens of other films given R ratings.' Despite its sole depiction of nudity being a three-second shot of a (rampantly heterosexual) male buttock, 17-year-old filmgoers were legally obliged to view this intricate study of suburban dislocation with their bemused guardians in tow - a dictate distributors optimistically steered to their advantage. L.I.E's searingly honest exploration of adolescence might now become 'a unique opportunity for a meaningful dialogue' between parents and teens. An unlikely occurrence in the main, given its fleeting, near-invisible cinematic outing.
L.I.E stands for Long Island Expressway, a commuter-crowded freeway running like a knife slash through an affluent New York suburb; for Cuesta 'a metaphor for a kid who's about to be sent into the scary world of adulthood regardless of whether he's ready or not'. A hazardous route then which, we learn, has already killed 'Cat's in the Cradle' singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, All the President's Men director Alan J Pakula - and the mother of L.I.E.'s 15-year-old Howie (a remarkable performance of put-on adolescent toughness, vulnerability and knowing from Paul Franklin Dano). The 'lie' of the title symbolising the myth of cosy suburbia but more pertinently, the casual or far-reaching deceits L.I.E.'s guilt-edged cast of slack-jawed wide boys, footloose rent boys, corrupt white-collar contractors and 'always ashamed' Chicken Hawks will visit on themselves and one another, emotionally hobbled, or shot-through with grief, every one.
If L.I.E initially drew comparisons with the work of Harmony Korine, Larry Clark - and Todd Solondz in particular, Cuesta's film contains a warmth and delicacy often lacking from these fellow chroniclers of suburban juvenile woe. The semi-autobiographical script, by Stephen M Ryder and Michael and Gerald Cuesta, is kinda different too - frank without being exploitative, and unexpectedly tender, with no pussyfooting at all. As Cox says, 'original, brave - kind of groundbreaking'. While that old stand-by of Indiedom, the roving hand-held is present and correct, if refreshingly unobtrusive, Romeo Tirone's exquisite cinematography further distinguishes L.I.E. from its sullen contemporaries, combining a stark, saturated quality (most effectively for the sterile look of soulless 1980s houses) with the smooth visual finish of a Michael Mann.
Perhaps its nearest equivalent is David O Russell's taboo-fest from 1994, Spanking the Monkey, another portrait of inter-generational relationships (plain old incest in this case) played out against the backdrop of suburban blitz - long a fertile slouching ground for independent filmmakers. As former photographer Cuesta, a Long Island native, whose boyhood memories brought a lot to bear on the film's innate truthfulness, says: 'Suburbs have their own cultures, rhythms, ethics, and morals.you have everyone from the Mafia to the artists to 9-5 commuters, and it's certainly true that there's a story behind every door and at the end of every driveway. A big part of making L.I.E. feel real had to do with the inherent realism that comes with shooting near a major highway. That constant hum of traffic permeates every neighbourhood - everyone deals with that sound.'
We first encounter Howie teetering on the brink of a burgeoning, ambivalent sexuality. Literally teetering, as the opening shot describes, balanced precariously on the edge of a flyover. Abandoned by everyone - his father, friends, and schoolboy crush Gary (a shimmeringly anarchic Billy Kay) the sensitive Howie finds emotional rescue with the mysterious 'Big John' Harrigan. An exuberant bear of a man, a curious Harrigan attempts to bewitch an amusedly reticent Howie with allusions to a thrillingly glamorous past, man and boy engaged in teasing, fumbling power play - until an unlikely, neo-parental alliance is at first grudgingly, then preciously forged.
'It was vital the audience could relate to Big John, even sympathize with him', says Cuesta. '(But) I tried very hard to make sure his intentions were constantly blurred'. For Cox, the role (one of his greatest performances) was 'potentially, a career-burying move. There were enormous dangers in it. But I weighed up the odds - and decided the whole point of not doing it were the very reasons to do it. I was really intrigued by how far one could take the character and make it work. The first trap an actor could fall into would be to play Big John as a man whose public façade disguised the fact he was a sexual predator. I took the opposite view: that he was this wonderfully open character, and actually a very nice man - who happened to be a pederast. And the range became so much bigger. It's a story of redemption, and that's what finally came through for me. It's a very responsible film.'