The suburbs seethe with young, broken, and furious souls. At least, this is the idea you might get from recent independent movies, earnestly charting teen terrors and traumas in order to point out the sickness of the culture that produces them. Beset by the usual scourges of contemporary adolescence — absent parents, violent media, broken romances, drugs — young Leland (Ryan Gosling) resembles many of his fictional precursors. He only wants to find a way to stop the pain of being “human.”
The United States of Leland begins with a murder, though it’s slightly hard to read at first. A handheld video camera stumbles across the lush green of a park to find and hover over a bloodied body. Leland, it appears, has knifed to death a harmless and, significantly, mentally handicapped boy, Ryan Pollard (Michael Welch). The California town, represented in generic tv news reports and a few choice images of weepy family members on both sides — is devastated and perplexed by this seeming savagery. Leland is arrested and sent to juvenile detention while adults attend to legal proceedings.
Here Leland meets Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher who’s been tending to young hard cases for too long. Intrigued by the fact that Leland defaces his history workbook (specifically, he carves his name alongside the title, “The United States of…,” apparently indicating a profound sense of ego or alienation or both), Pearl makes him a project. The fact that Pearl is also a wannabe novelist who knows that Leland’s dad is the famous, alcoholic, and absentee father novelist Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey) complicates his interest in the boy’s welfare. Though he insists that he only wants to help him, and really, to know “why he did what he did,” his wheedling of illegal meetings in order to question Leland becomes increasingly fraught. This not only because his questions are hardly helpful, but also because Leland’s to him begin to sound like reverse therapy.
This shifting relationship lays out the film’s general trajectory, as Leland will come to be instructive and redemptive for others, just as he has tried to find instruction and redemption in others. “I think I made a mistake,” he tells his mother, Marybeth (Lena Olin), when she finds him bloody and crumpled in his bedroom after the murder. She’s unable to help him now, or before.
As the flashbacks that illustrate his sessions with Pearl reveal, Leland feels abandoned at home: aside from his bad dad, his bitter mom can’t find time for him. And so he seeks affection from the pretty girl he spots in a record store, Becky (Jena Malone). She’s initially touched by his weirdness and sensitivity, as well as his sincere efforts to befriend her brother Ryan. Problem is, she’s also a heroin addict, not so much in love with her currently imprisoned boyfriend as with the drugs he gives her. Still, she tries to focus on Leland, for a time.
Becky, like Leland, is also troubled by her difficult home life. Aside from the difficulties presented by caring for Ryan, her father and mother Harry (Martin Donovan) and Karen (Ann Magnuson) are estranged, though still living together. And the girl who seems to be her sister, Julie (Michelle Williams), is having second thoughts about her devoted high school boyfriend, Allen (Chris Klein), who happens to live in the house with them, because his own mother recently died. The too-muchness and too-closeness make Michelle antsy (“I love you Allen, but we’ve been together for a really long time”), her nervousness rubbing off on Allen and Becky, whose drug stashing and conniving to get high only add to the diurnal tensions.
As this sorta saga unfolds for Pearl, taking notes and making trite observations (“You can’t make things unhappen” and “It’s okay to be angry, I mean, you’re probably entitled to it”), the film cuts in scenes of his own, current life, as he makes a few “mistakes” himself. These involve his seduction of a new secretary at the institution, Ayesha (Kerry Washington), and cheating on his longtime girlfriend now living in L.A. As he comes to realize the effects of his selfishness, Pearl also comes to some predictable conclusions regarding the selfishness of others, especially Leland’s father, Pearl’s erstwhile idol. (The scene where these two meet is the film’s most absorbing, which may not be saying much, given the pokiness of the rest of it, but Cheadle and Spacey are fine.)
If only by its casting of Cheadle as the troubled adult trying to help a damaged white boy The United States of Leland here takes on more than a passing similarity with Manic. The questions at the center of both films have to do with poor patriarchal models and kids in search of guidance. Cheadle brings a remarkable vigor to most any role, and certainly, he makes Pearl’s sense of urgency feel sincere. That Pearl is so unable to see himself makes sense too, as his institutional job is so overwhelming and the professional rewards are so nonexistent, even if the occasional single student does spark his interest or reignite his hope.
Pearl’s focus on Leland is the film’s; Pearl’s own experience is lost inside The United States of Leland. And Pearl’s story, in fact, seems the more original, or at least the one told less often in U.S. independent movies: the self-identified artist trying to find a way through the morass of workaday life, the black man working inside the U.S. penal system, dealing with inmates of color (mostly), trying to understand and combat their losses as well as his own. That Pearl cannot is the tragedy that extends beyond the tidy and predictable parameters of Leland’s story.