For a first time feature by writer / director Karen Moncrieff, Blue Car achieves a remarkable balance between raw emotionalism and subtle yearning with a poise that is commendable for its ambition and almost seamless execution. Dealing with subject matter (a progressively troubling entanglement, romantic and otherwise, between a high school student and her teacher / mentor) that could easily veer into melodrama or exploitation, Moncrieff invests such a degree of knowing humanity and complexity in her characters that there is hardly a false note to be found. With the exception of one nearly disastrous piece of exposition in the final act (more on that later) and some initial plot contrivances that border on oppressively maudlin, Blue Car still attains an impressive cumulative power.
Set in a soul-crushing version of suburban apartment dwelling (Ohio here), Moncrieff wisely refuses to resort to shorthand. She knows full well that details are crucial to any convincing position, and her production / costume designer Kristan Andrews' realization of troubled teen Meg Denning's (Agnes Bruckner) physical environment is nearly perfect. (Moncrieff notes in her commentary that all of the furnishings were purchased in secondhand shops in the surrounding area. The ruse works beautifully: both the family and their surroundings feel utterly lived in). Meg's dreary existence is augmented by the almost complete absence of her father, the functional and emotional absence of her struggling, hard-working mother Diane (Margaret Colin, convincingly exasperated and increasingly desperate), and the progressively troubling behavior of her younger sister Lily (Regan Arnold, remote and incredibly, poignantly out of sorts).
Burdened with responsibilities that are sadly too common, and hardly equipped to deal adequately with them at such early stages of their lives, Meg and Lily spend their afternoons biding their time before Mom returns in the evening. Little comfort is to be found when she does return, as recrimination and unspoken regrets on both sides become manifest as curt, defensive posturing. Longing for some semblance of normalcy and a return to simpler (happier?) times, Meg has taken to writing aching, tortured poetry of the brand not uncommon to adolescence (Moncrieff, who also penned the poems included, retains a sure ear even here). Her AP English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), immediately recognizes a kindred spirit of sorts and encourages her to continue exploring the underlying dynamics of her poem, the titular "Blue Car." ("Be brave" he advises.) The implications of his further sharing - smartly portrayed in multiple guises - and tutelage are examined with subtle physicality rather than merely seductive words.
As events in Meg's life begin to take unexpected and life-changing turns for the worse, Auster's increasingly complex set of roles (surrogate father, confessor, spiritual/artistic advisor) culminates into a deeply troubling subtext. Here too, Moncrieff is shrewd enough to realize that genuine romantic longing and subtle power playing - whether or not completely conscious at the outset - are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Moreover, she supplies Meg with just enough worldliness (noted by antisocial and enabling behaviors) to suggest that she is not ignorant to what is transpiring. However, by the time Meg finds herself without supervision in Florida at a poetry contest and encounters Auster and his family, the pair brilliantly and disturbingly play out the darker ramifications of the relationship.
The film's final act and ultimate resolution are both extremely powerful, but the former is nearly scuttled by the introduction of Auster's wife Delia (Frances Fisher). To this point, Moncrieff has so assuredly - and decidedly - left Auster's motivations nebulous that the inclusion of a sauced, scarred and obnoxious harpy is at best superfluous, and at worst disingenuous. It does, however, provide a devastatingly fleeting moment in which Delia's glance speaks volumes about the insight those closest to us possess, even in times of our own probable denial.
Blue Car holds up extremely well with repeated viewings, and the true scope of the performances becomes even more apparent. Moncrieff clearly has a gift for working with young actors, and Bruckner especially (she is in virtually every frame of the film) rises to the occasion. It is Strathairn's handling of Auster, however, that ultimately shines the brightest – his is the far more difficult role to pull off, and he suffuses it with an ample and impressive array of insight, contradiction and wisdom. Surely one of the best-acted features of 2002, it is the collective acting in Blue Car that resonates most vividly.
A special note must be made about the DVD cover art propagated by Miramax: it is simply atrocious. What's more, given Moncrieff's respect for both the tale being told and her actors, it is offensive. The film's distinct lack of salaciousness (implicitly denoted by the cover) will disappoint the trenchcoat crowd; even more regrettably, the young, sensitive souls who might find solace in the film may not give it a second look in the video store based upon the shameless jail baiting tactics (even the back excerpts US Weekly: "A sensitive sexual duet!" - ugh). While wholly appreciative to Miramax for distributing this fine little film in the first instance, and fully aware of the fact that the entity must make money to continue doing so in the future, I have no choice but to offer self-righteous chiding for their crass exploitation and cynicism. Moncrieff and her film both deserve better.
Video: Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, Blue Car generally appears solid. Director Moncrieff has benefitted greatly in having Rob Sweeney as her cinematographer, and his compositions and sullen lighting schemes add a lovely texture to the film. However, as is often the case with low budget productions, it can prove difficult to discern where original film grain leaves off and a troublesome transfer comes in: some unduly grainy sequences appear out of balance from the rest of the film, and black levels fluctuate during especially dark sequences. Some edge enhancement is also apparent. That being said, the intimacy of the film does not suffer from these shortcomings, and the transfer rates somewhere between fair to good.
Audio: Presented in a DD 2.0 surround mix, Blue Car sounds good if not especially impressive. The moody, somber score by Adam Gorgoni utilizes an expressive electric guitar that adds an effective layering to the proceedings, as does the selection of plaintive songs included. For a dialogue driven feature, Blue Car's audio remains easy to hear throughout and is generally well done.
French and English subtitles are also included, as is a French DD 2.0 audio track.
Extras: Included in this release is a feature-length commentary track by writer / director Karen Moncrieff. Moncrieff remains articulate, well prepared, and effusively generous in her praise to many throughout, especially her main actors and cinematographer Sweeney. She also speaks with great candor as to requested omissions (from test audiences and Miramax, unafraid to kill her darlings). The anecdote she shares about actor Regan Arnold (who plays Lily) is both gently humorous and heartbreaking, and she has no reluctance in pinpointing some rockier portions of her learning curve as director. All in all, the track is a pleasurable, thoughtful and entertaining contribution to the DVD release.
Also included are thirteen deleted scenes that range from mere seconds in length to many minutes. Some veer off into territory not at all examined in the film, and others provide additional context to scenes that made the final cut. All feature optional commentary with Moncrieff (one cannot choose a "play all" function with her remarks), and her insights and reasoning into two sequences in particular (one including the original sex scene shown at Sundance; the other(s) concerning the one adult male who actually acts appropriately with Meg) are extremely interesting. As with her commentary, these scenes are a welcome addition to the DVD release.
Final Thoughts: If the true mission of the Sundance Film Festival (where Blue Car was screened and picked up by Miramax) is to offer safe harbor to burgeoning filmmakers with distinctive voices and something new to say – or perhaps a novel manner in saying something oft repeated – then it has fulfilled its mission by featuring a platform for Blue Car and writer / director Karen Moncrieff. For a first time feature the film is remarkably assured and accomplished, directed with a low key approach uncommon to many initial efforts. Aided in no small degree by a preternaturally wise and agonizing performance by Bruckner, it also features some of the finest work yet recorded by veteran Strathairn.
Tough, poignant, wise and cautiously hopeful, Blue Car earns every one of its bruises and, like the director herself, the promise of better things to come. Heartily recommended, even with the inappropriate and shameful cover art.