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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Postcards’: Gritty Odyssey of a Street Hustler

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve McLean’s scorching “Postcards From America” opens with a young man, David (James Lyons), hitchhiking across a desert. The vast wasteland he surveys mirrors the emptiness of his soul, and as the film moves forward with his experiences on the road it also begins flashing back to memories of his brutal life.

By the time we meet the adult David, he has been living on the edge virtually from the time he was born. During his childhood at the hands of a savage, gun-wielding alcoholic father (Michael Ringer, truly scary), remembered by his son as a man “who hated children, his wife, animals and obviously himself,” he was in scarcely less danger than he was as a teen-age hustler working Times Square with his one good friend (Michael Imperioli).

Gritty, spare and dynamic, charged with emotion but free of sentimentality, “Postcards From America” is based on two collections of autobiographical writings by David Wojnarowicz, a controversial artist who had been at the center of a debate over government support of the arts when he died of AIDS at 37 in 1992.

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This is rightly a primarily shadowy film, lit by virtuoso cinematographer Ellen Kuras much in the manner of Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” and it captures the excitement as well as the desperation of surviving precariously.

The film is an odyssey, as David recalls his experiences, alternately comic, sad and dangerous, as a teen male hustler whose hard life so easily could have destroyed him but instead nurtures a reflective poetic sensibility and a capacity for love and tenderness. Personal tragedy, however, has propelled David on to the highway, rushing toward his destiny, embracing his fate.

The portrayals McLean gets from Olmo Tighe as the young David, Michael Tighe as the angelic-looking teen-age David and Lyons as the handsome adult David are remarkable--and remarkably well-matched.

“Postcards From America” captures the world of the street hustler and sexual outlaw--to borrow John Rechy’s phrase--with raw authenticity as McLean explores interrelated aspects of family, sexuality and masculinity.

Working with Wojnarowicz, McLean initially conceived of the film as a documentary, and as it evolved into a narrative, he kept his promise to the artist not to make it a literal biography of his life.

Yet this tough, truthful yet compassionate film might have been even stronger had the film’s David, like the actual Wojnarowicz, attended Manhattan’s High School of Art and Music by day while hustling by night. As it is, we’re left to puzzle how a man of no evident education or talent or even permanent address could narrate his own story with such eloquence.

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* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film contains much strong language, violence and rough but not graphic gay sex.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Postcards From America’ James Lyons: Adult David Michael Tighe: Teen-age David Olmo Tighe: Young David Michael Ringer: The Father Michael Imperioli: The Hustler Maggie Low: Mother A Strand Releasing presentation of an Islet Production in association with Channel Four Films of a Normal production. Writer-director Steve McLean. Based on David Wojnarowicz’s “Close to Knives” and “Memories That Smell Like Gasoline.” Producers Craig Paull, Christine Vachon. Executive producer Mark Nash. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Editor Elizabeth Gazzara. Costumes Sara Slotnick. Music Stephen Endelman. Production designer Therese Deprez. Art director Scott Pask. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500.

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