Most first-time filmmakers probably would not make a debut feature in which one of the most sympathetic characters is a pederast. Michael Cuesta, director and co-writer of L.I.E., did. A director of television commercials and a commercial photographer, a regular-guy suburban family man who lives on Long Island and was raised in the same neighborhoods in which his film is set, the 38-year-old Cuesta seems determined to undermine expectations about himself and his work. A straight man making a gay-themed film, a loving husband and father examining the intersection of sweet and creepy — it is hard to say whether Cuesta himself glosses over the contradictory impulses behind his film because he‘s not bothered by the discomfort they arouse, or if even he gets squirmy thinking about them.
Written by Cuesta and his brother, Gerald, along with Stephen M. Ryder, L.I.E. is about Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano), a 15-year-old simultaneously dealing with his mother’s death, his father‘s growing estrangement and his own burgeoning, still-undefined sexuality. Howie is the film’s subject, but its center is the boy‘s relationship with a character called “Big John” Harrigan. Powerfully portrayed by Brian Cox, Big John is a fixture in the community who secretly cruises teenage boys at highway rest stops, and it is his surprisingly tender relationship with Howie that is the linchpin of this hot-button story. Its drama and impact hinge largely on the suspended tension of a seemingly inevitable next step that never occurs. As with the image of Howie balanced on a rail above the expressway overpass that bookends the film, L.I.E. is in constant danger of toppling over, walking a line between exploitation and melodrama.
The film is awash in shirtless young men, and it would be easy to presume it comes from a gay sensibility. Having screened at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and other gay festivals around the country, it has undoubtedly benefited from the exhibition and publicity channels available to it as a “gay” film even as Cuesta backpedals from the label. (Cuesta’s own publicist was surprised at their first meeting to discover he is not gay.) “My wife and I, we laugh about it,” he says. “But it‘s not a coming-out film. It’s not a gay film.” Unmotivated by a specific message, he chose to tell this story simply because “I knew it was good. I knew it was different, and that‘s why I liked it. When I talked about it, I got people’s attention.”
Despite placing its main character in the direct path of a child molester for dramatic purposes, as well as placing a sexual tint on parental love, Cuesta backs away from his film‘s uncomfortable, socially unacceptable implications. “It’s about finding love with its many faces,” he says, “Howie‘s need to connect. To me that was always the emotional core.” He adds, “It’s spoon-fed. The way I filmed it, the way I depicted it, the way I told the story, it‘s kind of palatable. And that’s important to me. It‘s not Larry Clark. I didn’t take that unrelenting gritty approach. I wanted to reach the broadest audience with a very difficult subject.” Cuesta funded the film in part with his own money, and one can only wonder what he expected from this unlikely calling card. “I really just wanted to make one film. I never thought of making features as a career. For now I‘m back to my day job.” As if on cue, his cell phone rings from inside a satchel full of scripts. Checking the number, he seems the picture of a player in waiting as he confides, “Once I was cutting the movie, I realized, I really like this, how do I get paid to do this?”
Although the only sex scenes in L.I.E. are brief shots of Howie’s dad with his new girlfriend, the film has received an NC-17 rating. Cuesta claims it was primarily for the scenes between Big John and Howie that teeter precariously on the brink of seduction, inverting standard father-son bonding moments such as a first shave or a bedtime chat. In one climactic scene, Howie‘s quiet confusion paints the audience into the unlikely corner of almost rooting for Big John to do his thing, lest Howie suffer another crushing rejection. “I knew the movie would make people uncomfortable,” says the director. “Who at the MPAA is going to think, All right, I’ll take my 15-year-old son?” How would Cuesta feel about his own two young children seeing the film once they get a little older? “I‘d show it to my kids, sure.” Though he hastens to add, “My brother disagrees with me.”