Movie Review by Toby White
Starring: Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, James Costa
Director: Michael Cuesta
I’m sceptical of films that have titles one has to repeat, or even explain, to people. I can’t help thinking that the filmmaker is being either (a) pretentious or (b) deliberately ensuring that one repeats, or explains, the title to whoever one is talking to in order to embed it further in people’s consciousness (which, if you look in the dictionary, is the definition of pretentious). In this case, L.I.E. stands for Long Island Expressway. And, yes, I think calling the film simply “Long Island Expressway” would have worked better too.
Enough gabber. L.I.E. is a coming of age story about Howie, a misguided suburban teenager who befriends Gary, a local kid on his way to becoming a criminal and who leads the impressionable Howie into a ‘for kicks’ existence of breaking and entering. It’s when they rob Big John’s house that things take a curious turn for Gary and Big John (Brian Cox) know each other and Big John knows immediately who to suspect. At this juncture a point of observation is required. There’s a scene where Howie, while his father and stepmother indulge in a bout of vocal ooh-la-la, goes through his mother’s vanity case and tries on her lipstick. Now this should have been an early clue because soon after L.I.E. begins to enter a rather contentious area: Big John is a paedophile and Gary is one of ‘boys’…and once Big John catches up with these youths it’s not long before Howie is drawn into Big John’s clutches.
That’s it in a nutshell. However, Michael Cuesta’s film addresses this volatile subject from an angle that one wouldn’t have anticipated: Howie’s. His is a rites of passage tale dealt with maturely and soberly and is far from patronising. Howie is a freethinker from a dysfunctional family and Big John, far from being an ogre (although his actions are far from condonable) assumes the role of the surrogate father. Also, in fairness there is nothing grotesque in this film although in places it does take you within inches short of uncomfortable.
Subject matter aside, unfortunately L.I.E. is not without it’s shortcomings. It struggles to reach a level worthy of cinema. Visually, the photography, while not afraid to be experimental is sometimes only experimental for experiment’s sake, giving it a ‘just graduated from film school’ feel. This inventiveness is no bad thing but what lets it down is its lack of consistency. One can usually forgive a film for this within the first five minutes if you’re locked into the story but where L.I.E. suffers is that its engaging (if slow) story is let down by it’s distracting, disparate cinematography.
The performances are certainly worthy of note, giving the litigious material an understanding. They also more than compensate for a script that’s weak in places and book ended with meandering metaphoric voiceovers on the L.I.E. itself, the artery through Long Island. It’s the sort of film that feels like it should be one that provides stimulating conversation as you exit the cinema, the sort that makes some people ‘wow’ over and you’d feel guilty if you disagreed because you’d spoiled their moment…
Unfortunately, the more I think about it – the more I’m struggling to like this film.