Stateside is interesting, for awhile, in the way that it fractures and places together pieces of several youth-movie subgenres. We have here, at various points, Rich Kid Makes Good; Opposed Young Love; Gaining Character in Grueling Boot Camp; and, most dubious of all, Mental Illness Romance. Starring in all of these mini-movies are Jonathan Tucker as Mark DeLoach, rich kid sent to the U.S. Marines in lieu of jail time for a DWI; and Rachael Leigh Cook as Dori Lawrence, schizophrenic star of stage and screen.
This sounds ridiculous, and sometimes it is -- when this mash-up isn't telling an engagingly off-kilter story with clever and/or strange details. For example, when Mark keeps a '40s-style pin-up in his Marine locker, there's a weird joke in the fact that the poster actually is the girl waiting for him back home. And that it's actually the '80s (you can tell because, like seemingly all quasi-hip characters in a sensitive youth-driven indie movie, everyone is constantly going to see The Evil Dead in theaters).
Writer-director Reverge Anselmo has several little ideas like that -- some of them worn out or half-formed, but they look sort of neat patched together. Unfortunately, his characters navigate this patchwork via passages of truly bad dialogue and choppy editing. The bigger mystery of Stateside is why large chunks of it sound like a mediocre play; the conversations are stagy and stilted, and everything else that David Mamet dialogue would be if it were not well-written and well-delivered. The screenplay bravely admits that Dori really is mentally ill... so why do so many of the other characters kind of sound like her?
One of the more believable and lively of these characters is Mark's drill instructor (Val Kilmer, rocking the "and" credit) -- maybe because the idea of a hard-ass Marine talking crazy is easier to accept than teenagers doing the same (or maybe because Kilmer has had more time -- indeed, even time with Mamet himself -- to grow into the task of making odd dialogue sound like it's coming from his mouth and not a writer's laptop). In any case, Kilmer disappears after the boot camp section, and leaves the rest of the story to the kids.
This needn't be a problem; the cast includes Agnes Bruckner, who was wonderful in last year's Blue Car; she's good here, even when stuck in a best friend role. And Cook, while perhaps more endearing than truly gifted, effectively blurs the line between beguiling and mentally ill; you can see why Mark would like to believe she's quirky, not crazy.
Jonathan Tucker, though, is a curious blank. He has the trembly young-indie-lead voice popularized by Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, but none of their talent for hinting at dark corners. When a defensive Mark tells an attendant at Dori's halfway house that "you don't know me," the audience thinks: Neither do we.
But the thing is, at that point it doesn't seem like a big deal. The relationship between Mark and Dori is bizarre and sweet; they're more than the sum of their parts. Stateside never completely takes flight even at its best, but it's compelling enough to foster the hope that all (or even some) of it will come together in the end -- and, even better, it's unpredictable enough to create anticipation about what Anselmo might be planning.
These musings last until just before the film's resolution, at which point it tidily and inexplicably runs in a direction I will only describe as so conventional it borders on experimental. The filmmakers tie up their package with a bow without realizing the bottom of the box just dropped out.
"Stop with the guitar! I'm tryin' to sleep here!"