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Melissa Painter's Steal Me begins as a train rolls into a Montana town carrying a teenage stowaway. Jake (Danny Alexander) is a self-confessed thief riding the rails looking for his mother. This new locale is where he most recently heard she was, but when the man at her last known address informs him she's gone, Jake needs a new plan. He'll later tell a skeptical small-town boy that the thing about stealing is not how you get in, but what kind of exit strategy you have. It's clear pretty quick that Jake didn't prepare himself for the possibility that he'd have missed his mom yet again.
In fact, his next step is a pretty lame one. Even if he had succeeded in stealing the car stereo, where did he expect to sell it around there? Instead, he gets caught by Tucker (Hunter Parrish), a slightly older boy with a deep kindness streak. It's not every day someone takes a punch in the face and then buys his attacker a sandwich. Intrigued by one another, roaming around their conversation like twitchy jungle cats waiting to see who will lead, Jake and Tucker become friends after a fashion, and Tucker invites the homeless runaway to crash at his place. Rather than lie to Tucker's parents (Cara Seymour and John Terry), Jake tells them the truth of who he is. They can trust him or not. They choose trust.
It's an interesting move for the boy to take, and you have to wonder what he's playing at. All of the time he spends with the family, he has anxiety-laden daydreams about them finding out "who he really is." For someone who has apparently laid it all out for everyone to see, it suggests a complex and muddled psychology--just the sort of strategy a 15-year-old boy might concoct. Jake gets involved in a torrid affair with the single mother next door (Toby Poser), just one of a couple of attempts to replace his mother through sexualized relationships with older women (perhaps trying to capture the love he saw his mother give strangers but never him?), and she sees his internal conflict right away. Catching him stealing a trinket from her dresser, she warns him not to blow the good thing he's got going just to prove all the rotten things he tells himself.
The fact that the family opens their home to Jake and shows him the kind of caring he's never seen before could have easily taken Steal Me into Hallmark territory, but Painter is obviously more interested in the contradictions in her characters' personalities than she is trite sentiment. The mother is overprotective of her own children, but also solitary and suspicious of others, especially this strange boy that now lives in her home. Tucker's charity also turns to jealousy as the family dynamic shifts to accommodate its guest. Even when Jake repays the boy by orchestrating it so Tucker can finally get with the girl of his dreams, Lily Rose (Paz de la Huerta), Tucker wonders if it's all some game so Jake can get the girl for himself.
Not that we're ever sure Jake is always clear on why he's doing what he's doing. Likewise, I was never quite sure if Danny Alexander is either a really good actor or a lucky bad one. A lot of his line readings seem hollow, with barely any inner life registering in his eyes; yet, at other times, he manages to impress with his confidence and subtlety. Is it that he really understands how to portray Jake's confusion and emotional immaturity, or Painter skillfully uses a mediocre actor in a role that requires him to come off as unconvincing? Given how well Alexander shows Jake's turnaround, I'm willing to give him the credit. The delinquent takes to family life and even a job fairly well, but he can't resist showing off his skills as a thief when other boys taunt him. Thus, as with any movie of this kind, the crux of the story becomes when it will all come crashing down. Will Jake's past and what he proclaims is his true nature ever catch up with him?
Painter's most original move here is adopting the laid-back pace of the small town she's set her story in. Steal Me is similar in feel to the movies of David Gordon Green, in that Painter is showing the reality of common life in America without looking down her nose at it. The warmth and openness of the Tucker's family isn't something to be ridiculed, and their slowed-down way of living is exactly what Jake needs. The great thing about Steal Me is that this new attitude doesn't just swallow Jake whole, he infects it just as much as it infects him. What eventually happens isn't just a result of his true nature, but of everyone letting the things they fear most in themselves get the better of them.
The only downside here, though, is the same awkwardness that makes Alexander's performance interesting makes his character a little less so. I often found myself mentally stepping away from the movie and wondering why everyone cared about Jake so much. Outside of his willingness to be a blank slate, absorbing what they feed him and reflecting it back, he's just another mush-mouthed teenager with no real charisma. To fully buy into Steal Me, one has to gloss over these pockmarks so the movie can sail smoothly by. While it would have been worse had Painter made him a magical character full of wit and wisdom, Jake could have used a tad more charisma, and we could have used a meatier reason to care. It's the fatal flaw that keeps a good film from being a great one.
Steal Me has been brought to DVD with a decent widescreen transfer. The film has a lot of rich colors, and the countryside comes to life with the soft sunshine of morning and the brighter hues of later in the day. Jake's blown-out daydreams also look really good. The image can, however, be a little soft at times, and there is a pretty harsh layer shift in chapter 18.
A Dolby mix is relatively average, though with a few problems. It plays like they were going for a natural sound mix that captures the ups and downs of real conversation, but what this ends up meaning for the viewer is sometimes you can hear what is being said really well, and other times, the dialogue is too distant. Likewise, when Painter goes to a montage with music, the music is usually too loud (and most of the time not very good).
In addition to a photo gallery and the standard inclusion of a trailer, there are also two full-length audio commentaries with writer/director Melissa Painter and two of her main collaborators on the film. One is actor Danny Alexander, and it's a friendly discussion of the day-to-day shoot, with the director drawing stories out of the young actor to get him to open up about his process and to discuss what it was like to shoot his first movie. It contains a lot of joking and laughing, and they obviously bonded during the filmmaking.
The second is with Painter and director of photography Paul Ryan. This, naturally, gets more technical, covering how the look was achieved, shots were put together, and the pressures of a short independent shoot. Painter also talks about what she tried to achieve thematically.
Steal Me is a sometimes frustrating, but often involving, indie drama about one boy's search for his mother and his race to stay ahead of his own perceived demons. The lead performance by Danny Alexander is emblematic of the wobbly line the movie walks, often making us question whether its clumsy psychology is intentional or really just clumsy. Still, there is enough good here for Steal Me to be recommended for at least a one-time look. Rent It. The natural pacing and the internal drama is intriguing enough to inspire one to look past its flaws at the conflicts that tussle underneath them.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.