A Twisted Web of L.I.E.s
The Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) connects the suburbs of Long Island to the city, and holds 15-year old Howie Blitzer prisoner while allowing those closest to him to escape.
The stretch of highway has been the concrete grave of many, including Howie's mother. Unlike his father, who's buried his hurt beneath a mountain of self-involvement and a frivolous affair with a younger woman, Howie can't seem to fully recover.
More for the thrills than for the cash, Howie and his less affluent friends start robbing houses in an upper-class neighborhood. It becomes clear very early on that Howie views one of these friends, Gary, a little more fondly than the others.
But Gary soon gets him into trouble when the two rip-off a pair of guns from a character named Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox), who doesn't have much difficulty in deducing the culprits.
Howie discovers that Big John and Gary have had a relationship (the extent of which isn't gone into graphically), setting L.I.E. apart from its recent suburban contemporaries. Unlike Dylan Baker's pedaphile in Happiness or Kevin Spacey's Lolita-obsessed character in American Beauty, L.I.E. never goes for the shock value of its unconventional, arguably perverse relationships.
Though Big John initially has lecherous plans for Howie, he soon realizes their interests are very similar. Perhaps because Howie reminds him of himself, Big John turns from sexual predator to protective friend.
Though L.I.E. does share the suburban settings of many recent dramas like American Beauty or Happiness, it is a vastly different film.
Those movies sought to examine the sedate conformity and the true ugliness behind seemingly picture-perfect existences. The characters of L.I.E. have no such illusions. These characters know they're flawed and their lives are twisted.
But what makes L.I.E. a great film is that these flaws don't define the characters and never encapsulate who they are.
Too many films and TV shows portray gay characters as if the fact that they're gay defines every waking moment and influences every bit of dialogue or action. It is their only characteristic.
Yes, sexuality is an important determinant in who we are, but it is only one factor. A single trait woven together with many others defines what makes us who we are.
Big John is a pederast and no doubt he has caused much hurt in his life. But L.I.E. never paints its characters in broad strokes of black and white, each character's motives and actions are shades of gray. Brian Cox plays Big John with a subtle hint of longing mixed with self-loathing. In the end he's a lonely man who lives a lie to his family and friends. He knows what he does is wrong and hates himself for it. But it's something he can't overcome.
The film's believability is also helped immeasurably by the excellent performances of the young cast. Billy Kay as Gary is the strongest actor of the group, exuding naturalness and confidence, but the film belongs to Paul Franklin Dano as Howie.
Though Dano's stilted, uncertain delivery initially seems forced, his awkwardness melds seamlessly with that of his uncertain adolescent character.
Though L.I.E. has many themes in common with recent movies like Kids, Hurricane Streets and All Over Me, the film doesn't strive for their cinema verité realism.
Writer/director Michael Cuesta grew up in Long Island and knows the setting and the people well. The former commercial director fills the screen with striking images and experiments in lighting and color: boys sitting next to a campfire, silhouetted against the moonless night sky while the fire's reflection dances across their faces, the bright, lush greens of the suburban lawns, the cars that speed off into oblivion on the Long Island Expressway.
The camera is in a constant state of motion, but without the jarring hand-held look that hampers many independents or the fluidity of assembly line studio pictures. The result is a film that looks slick but not polished, independent but not low-budget.
Cuesta realizes something that so many films overlook: life isn't measured in distinct beginnings and ends. You can't pinpoint the exact moment you fall in love. You can't pinpoint the exact moment you become a man. You can't pinpoint the exact moment your life falls apart.
L.I.E. merely tries to take a snapshot in the life of one adolescent in a state of flux, a brief pause from the long collection of moments that make up a lifetime.