High schooler Meg (Agnes Bruckner) has good reasons to be angry. They start with her father, who long ago abandoned the family, driving off in his blue car as she watched, traumatized, from her bedroom window. And they persist in her difficult relationship with her mom, Diane (Margaret Colin), whose dullsville low-paying office job has her scrambling to please a boss who’s as exploitative and insensitive as he might be and still make it in the front door for a dinner date.
The only saving grace for Meg is her younger sister, Lily (Regan Arnold), who’s been cutting herself for some time but has recently stopped eating too. But even as Meg feels inclined to protect Lily, she feels guilty too, ragged because she can’t handle the after-school duties of mothering her precious, needy sibling. And so she lashes out, snapping at Lily, grumbling at her mother, hiding her face in her notebook, finding any small way to express but also not let go of her righteous, aching fury.
These are the first strokes of Blue Car, Karen Moncrieff’s first film (and winner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 1998 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship). They’re incisive and convincing, in large part because 17-year-old Bruckner (the pleasant high school love object in Murder by Numbers) is so utterly attuned to the layers of the role. Meg isn’t just a surly girl with a resolution coming her way by film’s end. Rather, she’s an earnestly (sometimes too earnestly) teenager who can’t make sense of the pain heaped on her or, especially, the adults who not only add to her burden but also remain blind (willfully or not) to what’s going on.
Into this morass of frustrations steps Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), Meg’s English teacher. Responsive to the rhythms of language and gesture, and familiar with angst, he appreciates her poetry (in particular, a personal memory of her father leaving in that car, and the way the sky and the trees looked at that moment in her mind); he also senses in Meg a kindred spirit, similarly disturbed by diurnal routines and eager to find a passionate connection. Or so she thinks. Meg’s view of Auster is different from the film’s, which makes her misreading difficult to bear. When he agrees to share with her a bit of the “novel” he’s writing, he reads her copied down lines from Rilke, realizing she’ll not recognize it. This momentous gesture leads Meg to project onto Auster the desire she feels, her sense of loss and warmth.
It’s clear to you, however, and just about from jump (or at least from when he starts rewarding Meg’s good work by leaving little chocolate cars in shiny blue paper on her desk, secret messages to make her feel special) that Auster is less noble and — significantly — less able than she imagines. His attentions are flattering, of course. He’s an older, articulate, sensitive-seeming man whose wife, he insinuates, makes him feel small. Meg is the antidote for this predicament, the easily awed student seeking his ostensible wisdom.
If Auster is understandably seeking solace and self-affirmation, he’s also an adult and he should know better. That Meg appears so irresistible to him is as much a function of his vulnerability and awkwardness as it is her own desire; the film tends to take her perspective, as he drives her home or offers her a shoulder to cry on when particular events seem overwhelming.
This early delineation is mostly delicate, even impressive, in its treatment of Meg’s complexities. In need of money for a trip to a poetry contest, she steals from the clothing store where she has an after school job; when that fails, she believes she might get a ride from a friend’s obviously scamming junkie brother. Meg’s inability to articulate exactly what she needs or wants makes sense. In this respect for its girl protagonist, Blue Car recalls Susan Skoog’s Whatever (1998) or Lisa Krueger’s Manny & Lo (1996), both earnest, thoughtful renderings of girls coming of age under duress. Because she is so lovely and so intently yearning — for love, for a father, for verification — Auster’s weakness seems less a moral condition than a circumstance. And Stathairn’s restrained performance goes a long way toward making their mutual self-doubt desire seem nearly equivalent.
But when the film goes for the Screenwriting 101 crisis point, it lapses into cringe-making cliché. When at last comes the confrontation with the wife, Delia (the always game Frances Fisher, in yet another thankless part), she’s so witchy-awful that Auster’s irresponsibility seems almost understandable. Delia’s cartoonishness abruptly undercuts what’s come before, but not so severely that you lose all sense of Meg’s emotional journey. In allowing the irresolution of Meg’s story — her grace, strength, and confusion — Blue Car is more sophisticated than its finale suggests.