2003, R, 96 min. Directed by Karen Moncrieff. Starring David Strathairn, Agnes Bruckner, Margaret Colin, Frances Fisher, Regan Arnold, A.J. Buckley, Sarah Buehler, Amy Benedict.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 6, 2003
Blue Car, while driving across some familiar yet delicate turf, threatens to careen perilously past the edge of propriety and taboo. And the movie does go there for a minute, but then, reflecting the characters’ choices, backs up and remedies its path. Danger is recognized and averted, a few moments too late, perhaps, but still within enough time to rectify the course. Blue Car is the first film by writer/director Karen Moncrieff, and it’s an incredibly strong debut reinforced by astonishingly good performances by all the principals. Moncrieff’s original script earned the filmmaker a Nicholl Fellowship, one of this country’s most prestigious writing awards. The movie tells the story of 18-year-old Meg (Bruckner), a budding high school poet who suffers from emotional neglect. Meg is a lovely young woman, uncertain of her newfound voice and unaware of her startling beauty. She’s a classic child-woman, suspended between the two worlds. Neither a Lolita nor a full-blown Sylvia Plath, Meg nevertheless has a real need for adult attention or approval, a need that is newly satisfied by the interest taken in her by her poetry teacher, Mr. Auster (Strathairn). Auster’s interest in Meg’s poetry is genuine, as is his interest in Meg – although, as a longtime self-deluder, he comes to this latter knowledge slowly. We watch in anticipation, in fear, that Mr. Auster will cross the line and abuse his student’s trust in him – for, surely, this seems where Blue Car is headed. But when the moment does arrives, what occurs is not what we might have expected. Although emotionally precarious, the moment is not a fatal collision, just a large bump in the road that leads toward Meg’s maturation. No description of these events can pass without crediting the lovely performances that imbue Moncrieff’s characters with such credibility and dimension . Strathairn (Passion Fish) delivers another one of his impeccable characterizations, showing us the human being roiling under the protective guise of professionalism and past glories. He, too, suffers from loss and self-doubt and is in need of support and encouragement. The character projects a quiet serenity while his insides are churning like a combustion engine, and Strathairn lets you see Auster trying to work all this through in his mind. Bruckner, the erstwhile regular on the TV soap The Bold and the Beautiful, hits just the right note as the overburdened teen, experiencing emotional highs and lows with a mind and body that is neither childlike nor fully grownup. Colin delivers a real career high as the mother of Meg and her extremely troubled other daughter Lillie (Arnold), painting a complex portrait of an overworked mom, who goes to her job by day, then night school after work, and leaves Meg to look after Lillie night after night. And Frances Fisher, in a small but note-perfect turn as Mrs. Auster, tells us more about this woman in her few minutes of screen time than most actors could manage in an hour. There’s more narrative happenstance loaded into the script of Blue Car than its running time should effectively allow, but the real keeper moments in Moncrieff’s movie are the small, quiet ones in which a simple glance speaks volumes. By the time it gets to the finish line, though, Blue Car has delivered a custom ride.