13 May 2004 | Bob Pr.
Good acting; flawed story/psychology; not a total loss
The title comes from an alteration an adolescent inmate in a correctional facility makes on the front cover of his school book on government, titled "The United States;" he adds "of (his name)."
Many characterizations in this movie work well -- the scenes between Leland (Ryan Gosling) and Becky (Jena Malone), Pearl (Don Cheadle) and father Fitzgerald (Spacey) as well as with Leland, Becky and sister Julie (Michelle Williams), among many others.
But the central thread of this movie -- the fulcrum on which everything hangs -- is the character and motives of Leland. He's a somewhat shy, passive, nice high school student who daringly introduces himself to Becky whom (we find) is going to an alternative school because of a past history of drug problems. In Becky's family, she has a sister, Julie, who's just graduating from high school and preparing to go on to college; Julie's boy friend, Julie's age (and whose parents' had recently died) is also living with them.
Leland lives with his mother; his father (Kevin Spacey) and mother have long been divorced and his father is a famous novelist. Leland is very perceptive. The young boy in "The Sixth Sense" saw dead people; Leland sees teenage lovers and recognizes that years later they will divorce, that pain is going to follow many people's present experience of happiness. BUT, for reasons that are never made explicit, his prescient gift seems to operate some times, for some people, some relationships, and not for others. ???
Parts of the movie feel a bit like a derivative quilt -- borrowing from "American Beauty," "The Sixth Sense," "The Graduate," and possibly some others I didn't recognize. That wouldn't be bad if only the character of Leland worked.
I think Gosling did a great job of playing Leland but the script and the story imposed limitations. Would such an observant, meditative young man ever be homicidal? Even for altruistic reasons? Nothing in the film gives a reason for this. I'm a retired therapist with much experience working with families and teenagers; while many of the reactions shown in the film work -- this part, this most essential element certainly does not.
And there is at least one other element which, in my experience, would not fit with real life although it's not as critical. The reason for the differences between the sisters, Becky and Julie, are never hinted at but that's okay. Once two sibs begin occupying different roles (one the all good girl, the other the troubled one), the roles themselves can begin driving each other to more extreme positions. For the troubled one, Becky, it's kind of, "what do I have to do to be loved around here -- give up being me and become Julie?" And the pressure to live up to being the All-Good, parent-pleasing child, is no less intense on Julie. So, why would she break up with her boy friend of long-standing and of whom her parents so obviously approve?
Don Cheadle was good as Leland's teacher; all others were good in their parts. 98% of the scenes were good. What was missing was that crucial slip in understanding human nature.
Good acting; flawed story and psychology; worth seeing; not a total loss.