Another esoterically engrossing dark portrait of troubled suburban youth, "L.I.E." is part of an emerging indie genre that strives to reveal an ugly underbelly to growing up middle-class in America.
Larry Clark is the director seemingly setting the pace for this trend with 1995's disturbing "Kids" and this year's fact-based "Bully," about a group of Florida teens who brutally murdered the scuzzy leader of their pack. But Michael Cuesta adds a solid, if mismanaged, entry with "L.I.E.," the story of a morally and sexually conflicted 15-year-old delinquent (Paul Franklin Dano) left in an adolescent limbo by his mother's recent death in a car crash along the Long Island Expressway (thus the title) that runs near his house.
His father (Bruce Altman) -- a well-off and quite crooked contractor under investigation by the FBI -- makes only minimal and insincere efforts to show interest in the boy's life. Pop is more interested in sleeping with his plaything girlfriend, who moved in while mom's side of the bed was still warm, and exploiting his would-be grief ("Don't you know about my wife?!" he scolds an insistent investigator).
Virtually parentless as a result, Howie (Dano) hangs around with a crowd of young, white trash ne'er-do-wells, breaking into houses for thrills and pawn-shop pocket money. But it isn't long before he's caught after stealing a pair of pearl-handled pistols from a 60-something ex-Marine called Big John Harrigan, played with a superbly precision mix of lechery and mentorship by Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter from 1986's "Manhunter").
Resourceful and well-connected, Big John does a little detective work, grabs Howie off the street and demands his property back -- then takes a shine to the boy, taking him under his wing, into his home, possibly as first steps toward taking Howie into his bed. You see, it turns out he discovered Howie's connection to the crime because the prettyboy hoodlum who put Howie up to it has been prostituting himself to older gay men like Big John.
In the wake of all this, a strange surrogate parent relationship forms. Big John bypasses sexuality (there's no good reason for the movie's NC-17 rating) to teach Howie how to drive and how to shave, and encourages his creative side when he discovers the kid channels his angst, strife and psychological muck into somber poetry.
The film's two leads are dynamically potent, sympathetic and so well developed that you get a sense of Howie's entire world and Big John's entire life even though the story takes place over only a couple weeks. Yet "L.I.E." feels aimless and fails to engage on an emotional level, in part because Howie doesn't grow, learn or mature much in the course of the picture.
The actors' efforts are great, the vivid and enveloping atmosphere of suburban distress is resounding, and Cuesta's direction is deft and deceptively simple. But in spite of all this, I kept wondering why I was watching these people, and an answer was never forthcoming.
Cuesta also stumbles over a huge logical gap at a pivotal point in the film. When Howie's dad is arrested, the FBI haul him out of the house without cordoning anything off, collecting any evidence or even leaving an officer on site to deal with Howie when he gets home from school -- all as an under-reasoned catalyst to get the kid to move in with Big John.
Someone who can more closely identify with the events or the people in "L.I.E." might be able to overlook the film's shortcomings and get more out of it, but I just didn't get any sense of why I was spending 97 minutes with these folks.