- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

The lead character in the independent film “Blue Car” has the soul of a poet and enough family angst to launch a thousand stanzas.

“Blue Car” tracks a crucial time in the young woman’s life with startling honesty and grace. Newcomer Agnes Bruckner’s turn as Meg, a budding poet, is far more potent than most teen characterizations trotted out for today’s youth market. The R-rated “Blue Car” might not be family viewing, but its lessons will resonate with anyone with a daughter or granddaughter nearing Meg’s tender age.

Writer-director Karen Moncrieff makes a confident debut here, dabbling in material that, if confronted on television, would earn the “very special episode” label. She succumbs to her lesser instincts only in flickering doses, but so much of her film hits pay dirt that the rare wrong turns always swerve back to center.

Miss Moncrieff’s gentle touch is all the more remarkable given her background in soap operas and genre television.

Her film accurately depicts a young woman teetering on an emotional collapse, but it’s even more evocative when cataloging the devastation wrought by divorce.

Meg is a disaffected 18-year-old eager to ride out her senior year until she wins first place in her school’s poetry contest. That draws the attention of her English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn in a remarkably complex performance). He decides to foster Meg’s writing skills.

“You can go deeper,” he says, a lesson the film betrays in spots. “Blue Car” orchestrates greater personal tragedies as it rolls along, reducing itself to a few melodramatic touchstones — such as shoplifting.

Auster’s presence couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Meg’s mother (Margaret Colin) is a divorced, working-class bundle of nerves too self-absorbed to give Meg enough attention. Meg’s father is the typical absentee dad, the kind who leaves a path of irrevocably damaged self-esteems in his wake.

So why do we get a creeping discomfort watching teacher and student side by side? Is it that Meg is slender and lovely, or do we doubt anyone in her life has her best interests at heart?

“Why are you so nice to me?” she asks him, a heavy line for which he has no ready answer.

Auster, who lost his son at an early age and could be reaching out to another lost child, is gentle, probing and persistent, and his efforts yield Meg’s best work.

Back at home, Meg’s sister is cutting herself as a cry for help, and their mother is too preoccupied with a potential new job to give either child much comfort.

As the poetry contest draws near, Meg’s precarious world begins collapsing. The safety net proffered by Auster also reveals itself as a complicated web.

Along the way, we’re treated to scenes both revealing and expected, the latter coming when mother slaps daughter in the middle of a dust-up. That’s right out of Daytime TV 101, but it’s all the soapy comparisons one can rattle off.

Miss Colin’s role typifies the film’s sure footing. How easy it would have been to cast the mom as a villain, a harpy without the capacity to feel her daughters’ anguish. Instead, Miss Colin’s character pops pills and apologies, rages and hugs; she’s a conflicted woman feeling her way through a life she never expected.

Miss Bruckner’s physical beauty — her dazzling smile peeks out but never stays in place — stands in stark contrast to her character’s anguish. That her smile emerges at all is a tiny miracle; that it does so with such radiance points to a day when Meg may find some inner peace.

Shot over a remarkably efficient 20-day span, “Blue Car” summons feelings of hope and hopelessness without staying too long with either emotion. It offers no easy answers, just enough heart for us to listen patiently for the questions.

***

TITLE: “Blue Car”

RATING: R (Mature language, sexual situations and alcohol use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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