Swedish Auto

Carter (Lukas Hass) works at Leroy’s Swedish Auto Shop by day, and stalks a violin-playing University of Virginia coed by night. He’s shaken out of his harmless, if voyeuristic routine, when Darla (January Jones)—waitress at the diner where Carter eats lunch every day—begins stalking him. When he notices, Carter begins following her, in turn.

The dueling stalkers eventually fall into a relationship, and Carter must decide between the beautiful, affluent, and unattainable undergrad Ann (Brianne Davis), and the sweet, troubled, but available Darla. Oh, and rescue Darla from her helpless mother’s chain-smoking, cancer-stricken, morphine-addicted, abusive boyfriend. In the meantime, we share some laughs with Carter, Leroy (Lee Weaver), and Leroy’s son Bobby (Chris Williams), another mechanic, who’s jealous of Carter’s gift for fixing cars.

Carter can’t get the girl, however, without a car.The heretofore dedicated pedestrian who walks to work and everywhere else asks Leroy if he can fix up one of the junker Volvos rusting behind the shop. Once given permission, he proceeds to return to mint condition a 1967 Volvo coupe that becomes The Vehicle that will enable him to escape the twilight of his protracted adolescence to become a man worthy of a woman’s love (but which one?).

“We could go anywhere in this car”, Carter tells Darla when he shows her the Volvo pre-restoration. The film begins with a montage of the old cars behind Leroy’s that captures Carter behind the wheel of the coupe. We get it. Carter’s not going anywhere until he puts his life in gear, steps on the gas, hits the road: all the relevant clichés suggest themselves at this point as the film veers from independent romantic comedy to standard-issue teen coming-of-age flick. It’s Christine, minus the demonic possession.

As a metaphor, the car works much less effectively than the barriers—windows, doors, windshields—that separate characters throughout the film. In one particularly powerful scene shot in Charlottesville’s open-air Downtown Mall, a gathering place for students and townies, we see Carter reflected in the glass of a shop, transparent. As a haunting piece plays on the soundtrack, Darla appears, reflected behind him, equally insubstantial.

A much more potent symbol for Carter’s development emerges on Darla’s first visit to Carter’s place, when she picks up an auto side mirror, which Carter identifies as a memento from the car crash that killed his family. This marker of Carter’s past and emblem of his fragmented life emerges naturally, unforced. The mirror is enough; we don’t need a whole car.

Writer-director Derek Sieg, who shot the film in Charlottesville, and on the UVA campus, uses locations to great advantage. One evening we follow Carter past the university’s storied dormitory row (where Edgar Allan Poe lived during his stint at the school), and the scene emphasizes the gulf between Carter’s dream-filled working-class existence and the lives of privilege enjoyed by what the more class-conscious Darla calls “college people”.

Sieg stumbles, though, when we follow Carter to Darla’s house. It’s a change of neighborhood, but also another distracting shift in genre, to Southern Gothic. Darla’s mother and her boyfriend Shelley are straight out of central casting, cracker division. Carter must move beyond both good and bad father figures to gain his independence, but where Leroy’s kind, but firm affection for Carter is revealed slowly, Shelley remains a one-dimensional villain of the kind that mars too many films set in the American South.

Hass and Jones turn in good, steady performances. When Carter finally gains entrance to Ann’s bright, shiny College Girl Apartment, the camera lingers on his face. We see certainty replace confusion, as he finally understands what Darla has told him about where he really belongs. Sieg should have trusted his cast to carry the plot in subtle moments like this, instead of relying on more predictable, generic plot devices like the auto transformation.

It’s instructive to see Jones play a character so different from her role in AMC’s ’60s period series Mad Men: Where icily stoic Bryn Mawr grad Betty Draper—wife of the series’ hard-drinking, philandering ad executive antihero—often seems barely human, shy, lonely Darla is all feeling once she connects with Carter, as she works hard to live the emotional life for both of them.

Previews and the Swedish Auto trailer are the only extras on the DVD.

RATING 5 / 10