directed by Michael Cuesta with Brian Cox and Paul Franklin Dano opens Sept. 28 at Neptune
MILK-CARTON KIDS are always portrayed as victims, and the specter of malign adult kidnappers and sexual predators is constantly invoked by politicians and movie producers alike. Looking beneath the fearsome stereotypes, however, L.I.E. posits that early pubescents can be more sexual and savvy than the chicken hawks trying to get into their pants. Slim, downy-lipped 15-year-old Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) is a case in point: bright, sensitive, bored, and possibly gay, he certainly looks vulnerable, but he's more of a calculating survivor than he appears to be.
That hard inner core is born of tragedy; his mother just died on the eponymous Long Island Expressway, Howie tells us in voice-over. Making matters worse, his negligent father is involved in crooked business dealings that Howie only half understands. His environment is one of neglect, stupidity, and affluence, so naturally he and his cronies respond with petty criminality and vandalism. Howie's pierced and tattooed teen-pal Gary turns tricks at rest stops along the highway, and L.I.E. convincingly shows us how Howie follows the latter both out of incipient sexual desire and ordinary adolescent alpha-male worship.
One of Gary's steady clients is 50-something Big John (Brian Cox), who drives an orange '60s muscle car, lives with his mother, and claims to be a Vietnam veteran. He's also frank about his penchant for young flesh, but Howie won't put out as easily as Gary. Instead, our hero strings the old goat along, demonstrating his knowledge of music, art, and cinema to gain Big John's approval, basking in the quasi-paternal interest so absent in his own home.
To the immense credit of Scotsman Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter in 1986's Manhunter TV movie), Big John emerges as a sympathetic father figure to Howie, supplying nonsexual love and encouragement to the vulnerable teen (the classic target of high-school bullying). He's a sugar daddy, but not an entirely bad daddy. Their relationship is the heart of this well-photographed but schematic film—a two-hander, dramatically speaking, with the flimsiest of supporting characters. L.I.E.'s clumsy script feels cobbled together from TV movies, with Howie the motherless poet who quotes Whitman and Big John the ruefully self-hating fag who loves show tunes and handguns. Seducer and seduced threaten to switch roles, but L.I.E. ultimately pulls its punches and tosses away its potential, choosing a safe, if ambivalent, ending. It's considerably less daring than its NC-17 rating would suggest.