Of all the mind-control tactics used by high school teachers to mitigate the chaos of assembled hormone machines on every kind of jag, one of the most jaded is the systematic enshrinement of “poetry.” Belief in the real-world power of crafted verse is guaranteed to keep at least a few little tweakers scribbling away. That moment of institutional boosterism remains an oddly democratic yet somewhat sinister phase.
This is one of the many subtleties Karen Moncrieff nails in Blue Car, a teacher-student tangle that uses its So-Called Lifeness as a beard for interactions that veer from everyday surreal to hauntingly injurious. Others include the claustrophobic latchkey existence of Agnes Bruckner’s Meg and her self-destructive, otherworld-obsessed little sis Lily (Regan Arnold), who bicker away their afternoons until Mom (Margaret Colin) returns to deliver a fatigued critique. Lily is an achingly doomed embodiment of the torment that fuels Meg’s notebook scrawl. Enter Mr. Auster, the English teacher, realized by David Strathairn as a broken lifer who leeches energy from Meg’s confessional verse and lets his appreciation cruise well past mentorship. Moncrieff doesn’t play much with manipulative erotics, focusing her attention on Auster’s creepy turgidity (“poets touch the hidden nerve”). We really only rove Meg’s body through the eyes of Auster’s wife (Frances Fisher), whose rueful anger prevents her from seeing Meg as a child and imminent victim.
Blue Car gets so much of the hard stuff (including Meg’s Plath-via-Tori poetry) that it assumes the easy stuff will take care of itself. It doesn’t. Contrived Auster and Meg moments are cribbed straight from Nabokov’s Sting remix—oops, missed the school bus, but Mr. Auster’s car is warm and dry. Additionally, Strathairn can seem detached from the sexuality that motivates his climactic betrayal. Moncrieff stops short of vilifying Auster—even when the situation devolves into violation, she looks to retain its emotional complexity.
A fluffier double cross is on the minds of the privileged grifters in New Suit, a Player-lite Hollywood send-up in which two would-be hotshots (Jordan Bridges and Marisa Coughlan) throw the town into a tizzy over a “hot” script that doesn’t exist and that everyone pretends to have read. Despite frequent cuts to mambos and cha-chas, this insulated tale of rich interns swindling rich studio bosses has no Clueless-style SoCal breeze (or righteous Working Girl gotcha).
In the absence of leading-duo heft (if Dan Hedaya is your bad-guy eccentric, and Heather Donahue your blaring witch, you need somethin’ on the other end of the see-saw), the most intriguing thing is the anachronistic office technology. Thought Phone Booth was a reach? Try these: “Mystery screenwriter” Jackson Strawberry sparks million-dollar curiosity but is never Googled; our leading man has written a screenplay for which there’s no electronic copy; even the cell phone of Hedaya’s Hollywood honcho rings with a five-year-old default tone. But then, who reads these scripts anyway?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2003