Friday, 4 December 2009

L.I.E.s, all lies.

I remember stumbling across this title a couple of years ago after seeing There Will Be Blood. Other than, obviously, being blown away by the frenetic fury of Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, I was quite equally stunned by that of Paul Dano - how he escaped the awards season without significant praise will always stun me. (And don't even get me STARTED on the missing Johnny Greenwood score in the Oscar race. Don't. Even. Get. Me. Started.) His ability to hold his own more than adequately against the eternal strength of Day Lewis was mind-boggling: he didn’t just keep up, however; he made the performance entirely his own. For someone so young to pull this out was extraordinary, and beyond being testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction and the power of acting opposite someone as strong as Day Lewis, it spoke to an incredible ability in his own right.

Of course, I knew Dano from his turn as the mute son in Little Miss Sunshine, another great performance, albeit one that didn’t allow for the same scope as There Will Be Blood. But I wanted to know how he had gone from effectively unknown to his large role in Sunshine, and finally to PTA’s breakout turn as an epic director. (There Will Be Blood was pretty much my favourite major film of 2007 - there was a little Australian film that trumps it, but we’ll stick with TWBB for the sake of ease.)

Which brings me to L.I.E., Dano’s breakout role in 2001. It wasn’t a film I specifically sought out. Instead it was a title that I stumbled across, recognised, reminded myself why I recognised it and then took home, ultimately finding myself quite happy to have done so. Ostensibly, the acronymous title stands for Long Island Expressway, the major arterial around which much of the action takes place. However, as you can imagine when a film takes on a title such as this, it means so much more.

Dano plays a young almost-sixteen year old, Howie, whose mother was killed on said expressway. With a couple of friends from school he is committing petty crime - breaking into houses and stealing not very much. One of his friends, the beautiful miscreant Gary (played by Billy Kay) drags Howie around as his friend, whilst Howie begins to realise that he wants more than that. Gary is also running a side business as a rent-boy - which is how he knows about a house that promises a big score. The house is owned by Big John Harrigan (played to a magnificently seedy and disgusting degree by Brian Cox), but he quickly discovers the culprits and soon seeks compensation for his lost goods. Gary ups and leaves for California, leaving Howie to develop a relationship with Big John whilst his father languishes in prison for a recently discovered fraud.

On the outside it could be seen as quite controversial. For all intents and purposes, Big John is a pedophile. But nothing actually happens, apart from desire, dreams and innuendo. This is what makes the film all the more powerful - it is not about a crime, but about the grooming and the acceptance and misplaced desire of the young victim. Exhibiting drunken Lolita-esque moments of seduction only make you realise how young and confused Howie is - he feels nothing specifically for the older Big John, but he is realising an opportunity to live out his feelings for Gary through someone Gary has already engaged with. Big John is grooming, yes, but he is primarily a catalyst for the journey of Howie: as grubby as he is, it is Howie we’re concerned with.

The sexual power of youth has been explored before on film. Obviously, Lolita in its two cinematic guises is the benchmark. Mysterious Skin is another that springs to mind. L.I.E. is different from both in that nothing ever happens. The film is not about molestation, but, as corny as it may sound, about self-discovery in youth. It’s a coming of age story set in a very different space to that which we are familiar with.

The film is grounded by exceptional performances from all involved. The young cast is entirely self-assured, naive when they need to be, strong and all-knowing when it is called for. And they never overplay - always a danger with a young cast. Cox, for his part, plays perfectly the emotionally guarded and manipulative older man. You can never tell whether to believe his revelatory moments or not.

L.I.E. is a very strong, very knowing film. Some imaginative cinematography never overpowers the narrative, and its realisation as semi-realist for the most part sits very well with the nature of the story and the elements of the performance. Kudos to writer/director Michael Cuesta (who appears to have worked mostly in television) for pulling together such a sharp piece of cinema. 4 stars.

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