What it feels like for a boy
Agroup of 14-year-old boys, baby-faced and raging with hormones, sit around a Long Island pizza shop and talk about sex. One of the kids has been sleeping with his sister—or so he claims—but doesn’t realize she can get pregnant when he neglects to use a condom. Another boy, Gary (Billy Kay), tattooed and pierced, works as a road-side rent boy, but keeps his mouth shut about it. Howie (Paul Franklin Dano), the youngest looking of the bunch and not yet fully ravaged by puberty, has the sophisticated cynicism of a boy who hasn’t had his sexual awakening yet. The dishonesty, unspoken truth, and ambiguity of this early scene exemplify the observant strengths of L.I.E. (the double-meaning acronym for the Long Island Expressway), yet another earnest, controversial, indie teen film.
Compulsive hooky players, these boys have a bad habit of breaking into oversized houses in the neighborhood, looking for petty cash and jewelry. They seem to steal out of boredom as much as for the booty. Invariably setting off the alarms, they sprint away, and the heist becomes a game. (In one moment of ballsy fabulousness, Gary struts home from a robbery wearing a stolen fur coat.) Soon, an affinity forms between Gary and Howie, on both criminal and intimate levels. Gary lets Howie in on a big score, breaking in to the house of one of his most faithful clients, Big John (Brian Cox, Rushmore, Manhunter). Big John is celebrating his birthday in the house when the boys break in, and despite the singing upstairs, they make enough noise to be nearly caught fleeing the scene. They do, however, manage to swipe John’s prized (and unsubtly symbolic) pistols before making their getaway.
The next day, the boys do boyish things, playing with the guns and wrestling, pausing in their roughhousing just long enough to look longingly in each other’s eyes. Unlike such moments in typical coming out films, however, here the boys don’t kiss. They don’t make any overwritten speeches or even verbally acknowledge their mutual desire; they don’t have to. These boys, quite realistically, refuse to identify and let the moment pass, the way most such moments would in real life. Just when it seems Gary might kiss Howie, he threatens to soak him with a loogie instead.
Too soon, though, L.I.E. changes lanes, and the focus shifts from the relationship between Howie and Gary to the development of one between Howie and Big John. To save himself, Gary rats on Howie to Big John, who pursues the boy and gives him a provocative lecture on the fine art of oral sex. Big John, in no uncertain terms, has pedophilic proclivities and hires young boys, including Gary, to fulfill them. In his performance, Cox resists making a grotesque or pathetic character out of Big John, but director Michael Cuesta is not so sympathetic. Horror or suspense camera set-ups—including a stalking point of view shot when Big John is walking behind Howie and a scene when his orange car ominously pulls up behind the unsuspecting boy—code him as a threatening chickenhawk.
And yet, Big John becomes Howie’s caretaker rather than lover, when Howie’s father gets sent to federal prison in the film’s tedious subplot. Troubled parental relations run throughout the film—Howie’s mother is dead and his neglectful father is sent to federal prison, Big John’s father is absent and his mother is overly attentive. Such cliches reinforce the old assumption that homosexuality results from bad nurturing.
Making matters more muddled, Big John identifies as a straight man who likes little boys. “It’s confusing,” he tells Howie, and it certainly is. Howie, seemingly caught between his need for an alpha male in his life and his burgeoning queer sex drive, makes a pass at Big John, who refuses Howie’s advances. This sudden change of character—from seducer to concerned father—not only avoids disconcerting narrative developments already set in motion, but also seems too conventionally moralistic in a film that looks at first like it will sensitively and boldly address a pedophilic gay relationship. Both Roeland Kerbosch’s For a Lost Soldier and Todd Solondz’s Happiness approach such non-normative relationships and desires with considerably less anxiety. Granted, these desires can be conflicted and perplexing, but the representation here reads as a failure of nerve, a refusal to take on an uncomfortable topic, one that is so often sensationalized or ignored and so is in special need of intelligent treatment.
Without the kiddie-porn-sleaze factor of Larry Clark’s Kids, Cuesta’s film does succeed in presenting underdeveloped, not-yet-legal teen flesh in a clearly eroticized manner and acknowledges the boys’ erotic yearnings. (Thanks to the MPAA, L.I.E. does share Kids‘s NC-17 rating.) Howie masturbates in bed, and Gary, clearly seeing himself as a beefcake even though his body has not caught up with his self-image, takes his shirt off at every opportunity.
L.I.E. is most effective when focused on the emotional and social edge walked by these boys, who talk about fucking but either don’t know what they’re talking about (one delivers a particularly comic mispronunciation of “clit”) or cannot articulate their desires. It also reveals a suburban underworld of hustling (and an intriguing, cloudy reference to a cop who may be a john as well), without sensationalizing or exploiting the boys. Its ultimate refusal to go all the way, however, brings the film to a dead end.