Movie review: 'Blue Car'

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3 stars (out of 4)

Coming-of-age dramas are stock material in the indie film world, but sometimes a performance and filmmaker just hit the mark. In Karen Moncrieff's debut feature, "Blue Car," Agnes Bruckner delivers an indelible portrait of a girl on the brink of womanhood finding her own artistic voice and sense of purpose.

Bruckner plays Meg, a teenage poet whose English teacher, Auster (David Strathairn), encourages her to develop her art. "You can go deeper," he says in his favorite refrain.

Meg maintains a contentious relationship with her divorced mother (Margaret Colin) and her troubled little sister Lily (Regan Arnold), whom she's forced to baby-sit while her mom is job-hunting. With her own dad having moved on to a new family, Meg increasingly looks to Auster as a father figure.

"Blue Car" captures the complex dynamic of a mentoring relationship like few movies before it. Strathairn, an actor who rarely strikes a false note, gives Auster a gentle yet firm, melancholy air. A writer with a lofty reputation, at least within the high school, Auster has suffered the loss of a son and seems to have as much stake in Meg's reaching her potential as she does.

Meg's home life is so lacking in affirmation that she takes to Auster's encouragement like a parched bird to a pond. Auster's goal is to get her to qualify for a national poetry contest, and she gratefully takes up the challenge.Although Meg carries our sympathies, Moncrieff isn't afraid to give her some of the unattractive attributes of a prickly teenage girl. Meg may be a victim of unpleasant circumstances, but she's also aggressively mouthy with her beleaguered (if insensitive) mother and harshly resentful of her sister.

Bruckner, whose most prominent resume entry is the girlfriend role in "Murder by Numbers," brings a documentary-like authenticity to Meg. She's got baby fat in her cheeks, a face that conveys an adult's worth of worries and a smile that, on the rare occasions it appears, can illuminate a room. Her body, depending on how she dresses and carries herself, communicates the same sort of child-adult limbo. You can see why Auster might be drawn to her in conflicting ways.

That said, I'm not sure I buy the way Moncrieff resolves this situation. There's some sharp, specific writing in here, and the performances are finely nuanced, but you become too aware of the filmmaker stacking the deck as she imposes her resolution.

Same goes for her treatment of Lily, the latest (but far from the last) of a string of self-mutilating girls portrayed on screen. At one point Lily compares herself to an angel, and you can sense Moncrieff straining to turn her into a romantically tragic figure. It's all a bit much.

But for the most part, "Blue Car" succeeds in fulfilling Meg's assignment to "touch the hidden nerve." The movie was a sleeper hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, not because Moncrieff is a fancy filmmaker but because she and her performers invest a rite-of-passage tale with clear eyes and full, dark hearts. It might have gone deeper, but "Blue Car" still rings with the poetry of truth.

"Blue Car"
Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; photographed by Rob Sweeney; edited by Toby Yates; production designed by Kristan Andrews; music by Adam Gorgoni; produced by Peer J. Oppenheimer. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, May 16. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: R (sexual content, language).
Auster - David Strathairn
Meg - Agnes Bruckner
Diane - Margaret Colin
Delia - Frances Fisher
Pat - A.J. Buckley
Lily - Regan Arnold

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