L.I.E. is an unusually frank and unwaveringly perceptive film in which every character seems to live in line with the metaphorical anagram of the title.
15-year old Howie (Paul Dano, in his feature debut, as Paul Franklin Dano) lives with his unscrupulous father after his mother his killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.). He is secretly in love with his diabolically charismatic best friend Gary (Billy Kay), an adventurous flirt of a boy who reeks of rampant sexuality and coaxes Howie into robbing houses for fun. One day, they rob the house of rumored local pedophile Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox) and are caught. Almost. Big John rips the pocket out of Howie’s pants as he runs away – Cinderella to Big John’s Prince Charming. After Gary fences the goods and fingers Howie for the crime, Big John (officially introduced cruising the streets in his factory-orange Cutlass 442 to Donovan Leitch’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” no less) confronts him and Howie offers to work off the debt. To Big John this sounds like a chickenhawk’s dream, but Howie doesn’t know of Big John’s predilection for young boys.
Thus begins a relationship that is not easily definable. Big John is a predator, to be sure, but he’s also aware of what he does and his inability to control it. Howie, even though he is bereft of a father figure he can trust, isn’t a fool. He’s intelligent and sensitive (he writes poetry and quotes Walt Whitman, causing Big John to ask, in a twisted wink to The Graduate, “Are you trying to seduce me?”).
The script by director Michael Cuesta and his brother Gerald (a former police officer) is acute and ambiguous at the same time; portraying vivid, realistic characters but challenging our ideas of what those characters should be. The performances across the board are superb, with Cox giving one of the very best of the year. Dano is also excellent (I knew we’d be seeing a lot more of him in the future), as is Kay and the entire supporting cast.
Despite the lack of prurience (it’s ironic that the film’s only sex scene is between Howie’s father and his girlfriend), the very subject matter caused Jack Valenti, the tedious little dictator of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) at the time, to give L.I.E. an NC-17 rating. Ironically, Valenti said the ratings are only for parents to judge what’s ok for their kids to see, but an NC-17 forbids anyone under 17 to see it, thereby seizing a parent’s ability to make up their own mind. It’s unfortunate too, as it’s an insightful and affecting teen drama suitable for mature teenagers. With the exception of a way too moralized ending, this is a treasure of independent film.
Movie Matches: My Own Private Idaho, Star Maps, Happiness
How to watch: Rent or buy on Amazon