Hungry Hearts

Blue Car, a quietly devastating song for our lonely age, stars a 17-year-old Agnes Bruckner as Meg, an emotionally malnourished teenager who’s trying to shield herself and her younger sister, Lily (Regan Arnold), from the pain of abandonment by their father, and from neglect by their beleaguered mother, Diane (a very good Margaret Colin). Left to baby-sit while her mother goes to night school, Meg is the one who worries over Lily’s classic cries for help — the little girl is cutting herself, refusing to eat and hiding out in a fantasy that she’s an angel who can fly away. With nowhere to turn, Meg, who’s been trying to kick a cry-for-help habit of her own, comes to rely more and more on Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), a friendly English teacher who encourages the poet in her, and more besides.

If you think you see another sexual-abuse movie coming, you’re right, but in the wrong way. Writer-director Karen Moncrieff blows a fresh wind through the most fatigued phrases in the pop-psych lexicon — “dysfunctional family,” “at risk,” “exploitation of minors” — phrases that invite rote moral indignation (“Her Teacher Stole Her Innocence!”) and the itch to point a finger and leave it at that. Moncrieff won’t permit the sanctimony. Though hardly neutral about the abuse of adult power, Blue Car is an empathetic study of loneliness — Meg’s loneliness, her sister’s, her parents’ and, yes, her teacher’s. It is about how such situations grow in an emotional vacuum, about the inchoate good intentions and self-deceptions that pave the road to hell. Moncrieff, whose first feature this is, is an astute psychologist with a sophisticated grasp of human limitation, and unlike the armies of journeymen who hack out programmatic social-issue movies of the week, she knows the difference between understanding and excusing. Blue Car grinds no ax — it evokes a vibrantly specific world, and though Moncrieff has a writer’s ear for dialogue, especially for the intimate hostilities that pass between adolescents and their parents, the movie shows far more than it tells. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney, who also shot Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You, sets a tone that’s dark and claustrophobic, yet unexpectedly lyrical. Moncrieff has a born filmmaker’s gift for working up habitat and telling details into mood — Lily picking languidly at her food, Meg’s mother sprawled asleep on her bed after a disappointment, Meg primping hesitantly before a mirror, Auster smelling her hair as he gathers her into a consoling hug.

Blue Car’s emotional life unfolds as much within people as between them — silence is an overwhelming measure of their mutual isolation. Bruckner has the plump, undefined face of a child and the ripe, brooding mouth of a sensual woman, and she plays Meg on a slow burn, as if holding in reserve capacities she’s barely aware of and wouldn’t know what to do with anyway. When — switched on by the aspiring novelist in her teacher, the poet in herself, and by the mere fact that she has someone’s full attention — Meg smiles her rare, radiant smile, you can imagine a happy life for her, even as you tremble for her safety. Strathairn, for his part, is the most inward and intense of actors — his waters run so deep that he can call up solid citizen or handsome devil at will. In Blue Car, he’s both and neither, a disappointed man as eager to help as he is to lie to himself about what he’s doing. Together, Meg and Auster go to the crux of the confusion that so often drives attraction between an older man and a younger woman — the desire to be parent or child spilling over into the urge to become a lover.

Time passes. As things go from bad to disastrous at home, Meg and Auster grow closer, trading confidences — she’s lost a father, he a son — over brown-bag lunches as they prep for an upcoming poetry contest in Florida. It becomes impossible to track the progression of this relationship without holding one’s breath for the seduction. When it comes, it’s almost unbearable to watch, not because Moncrieff mines the scene for sensation — these moments are among the most convincing and least exploitive portrayals of non-consensual sex I’ve ever seen — but because a real relationship, albeit one based on mutual desperation, has been cheapened, the hurt compounded by the revelation of another, prior betrayal. In the outcome, Moncrieff at last allows herself and Meg a blistering moral outrage, but she also has the courage to bestow on her heroine a new strength that, in part at least, was nurtured by the very man who walked away with her trust.

Blue Car offers no sociology, no bustling social worker or sage therapist to fix everything, no speculation about the problem of troubled teens. Still, the vivid particularity of Meg’s story offers a more stinging indictment than any TV movie could provide of our atomized and depleted world, and the social disarray — the families with too many pressures and not enough supports — that forces all the Megs and Lilys out there to stumble through life alone. Moncrieff is unequivocal about the responsibility of adults toward kids. Yet she offers all her characters sympathy without indulgence, and the understanding that on some level we’re all doing our best, that mostly our best is far from enough — and, worse, that sometimes it is altogether too much.

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