Blue Car (September 25/02)
Though Blue Car is an incredibly downbeat movie, it's certainly very rewarding due mostly to a fantastic (and most likely star-making) performance by Agnes Bruckner and a script that never strikes a false or phony note.
Bruckner stars as Meg, an average teenager saddled with a less-than-optimum home life. Her mother is either at work or night school, leaving Meg to care for her sister Lily, who's taken to cutting herself as a way of expressing her sadness. Her only joy comes from her poetry, which has caught the eye of her English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn). He encourages her to enter a poetry contest, which offers a $3000 scholarship as a reward (money that she could sure use). Meanwhile, her relationship with her mother is getting worse and her sister's becoming more and more withdrawn.
Blue Car is the directorial debut of Karen Moncrieff, a former actress who also wrote the screenplay. It's almost relentlessly downbeat, with Meg's problems going from bad to worse as the film progresses, but the movie constantly remains compelling mostly due to Moncrieff's achingly honest screenplay and Bruckner's star-making performance. Like last year's In the Bedroom, the events that transpire in Blue Car never feel artificial or as though the writer inserted them in just for the sake of having things happen. There's a certain degree of authenticity here; there aren't many moments of levity or happiness in Meg's life. Elements like that would probably have been more prominent in a mainstream studio picture, but Moncrieff largely eschews those sorts of cliches and feel-good trappings.
Having said that, the depressing tone of the film does take a while to get used to. Meg's life just keeps getting worse and worse, from her deteriorating relationship with her mother to her sister's worsening mental condition. Her one solace seems to be her poetry, and under the watchful eye of Mr. Auster, she manages to exorcise her demons through her writing. The bond that forms between the two eventually resembles that of a father and daughter, with Meg receiving a great deal of support from the older man. But even that relationship winds up destroyed after Mr. Auster takes advantage of Meg's trust and innocence, forcing the girl to confront yet another of life's ugly truths. It's that sort of gritty realism that's initially jarring and may even be off-putting for some viewers, but stick with it. Blue Car isn't always easy to watch, but it's certainly rewarding.
It's doubtful that the film would have been nearly as effective as it is were it not for Bruckner's simply amazing lead performance. The character of Meg could easily have turned into a sour, sardonic Christina Ricci type, but Bruckner never allows her to become a cliche. It's a brave performance, and one that'll no doubt open a lot of doors for her (let's just hope she avoids teen horror flicks). Equally good is David Strathairn as Mr. Auster. Though he has dabbled in leading man roles (most notably in Limbo), Strathairn's turned out to be a heck of a character actor. Though it becomes easy enough to hate Mr. Auster because of his third act actions, Strathairn's complex performance prevents any cut-and-dried resolutions. Rounding out the cast are Margaret Colin as Meg's self-centered mother and newcomer Regan Arnold as her neglected little sister.
Blue Car isn't necessarily a pleasant movie to watch, but there's no denying that Moncrieff has created a fascinating look into the life of a troubled outsider without ever falling prey to the cliches of this genre.