5 June 2004 | ian23
Funny, Sharp and genuinely Sweet
This film exceeded my already high expectations. The director and screenwriter have delivered an amazingly acute study of high school dialogue and interaction, while simultaneously exploring the polarizing landscape of evangelical Christianity in America and still delivering consistent laughs from start to finish.
The acting is superb. Martin Donovan (who routinely shines in Hal Hartley's films) here nimbly deconstruct his familiar grim sociopath persona to depict one of the most nuanced anti-heroes ever seen in a teen film. Jena Malone continues and deepens her fine work from Donnie Darko, creating one of the most moving teen heroines in memory. Eva Amurri is an inspired bit of casting as the multi-faceted school rebel who's full of surprises. And... it's true, Macaulay Culkin can act-- and even carries more than one scene with his understated comic timing
The storyline itself often leans on contrivance, but the situations presented ring true with an emotional depth rarely granted to pre-adult characters, and none of the events will seem off the wall to anyone familiar with modern adolescence or this particular religious subculture.
The film is blisteringly funny, unusually sharp in its look at different types of people and their individual frailties, and sweet-- possibly even, despite what else you may have read elsewhere, too sweet. The ending is the softest spot in the movie, but draws effectively on the hard-won empathy for each character to float to a graceful (ahem, pun intended) stop.
To be perfectly honest, as a reviewer who grew up in a very similar environment, I have to say that if the filmmakers could be accused of any distortion of the truth, it is in making their 'villains' *too* sympathetic, too keenly aware of their own flaws, and, in the end, too readily aware of a larger world around them to accurately reflect the worst elements of this belief system. All of the less-sympathetic characters in this film could be drawn from a documentary (yes, even Hilary Faye!)... if, that is, the documentary chose to edit out their least savory moments.
Of course, there are many good-hearted, well-meaning evangelicals in the world, and they are ably represented by characters such as Mary's mother, who makes mistakes, but who thinks more with her heart than her dogma. But the indignant critics who are so intent on finding a mote in the director's eye, because he dares to show how twisted some of their fellow believers might be, might stop for a minute to wave a hand in front of their own face, or their neighbor's, where they may just find a log they've been trying to ignore.