Film: 'The United States of Leland'

The United States of Leland

*** 1/2

R, 108 m with Ryan Gosling, Don Cheadle, Kevin Spacey, Jena Malone, Chris Klein and Michelle Williams. Directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge. Opens tomorrow.

When illustrating a character's actions in film or storytelling, there are four ways their perspectives can be framed. There are characters who evoke good qualities and do the right thing, and those who get lost in their wrongdoings. There are villains and criminals whose actions have vicious and harmful intentions. Rarely do we see a film that captures the good found in a character that would otherwise be abhorred and considered a complete monster. In "The United States of Leland," director Matthew Ryan Hoge structures a teen crime film from the perspective of a youth who is good, but whose one life-changing action destroys his network of family and acquaintances.

Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), the son of famous author Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), unexpectedly kills the younger autistic brother of his girlfriend Becky Pollard (Jena Malone). It's a tough subject to stomach, but to add depth, Becky is a heroine junkie who has completely torn her family apart. Her older sister Julie (Michelle Williams) tries to remain strong as the oldest and most normal sibling, but at the same time, she is confused about college life, her fragile family and her dependent but affectionate boyfriend (Chris Klein), who recently lost his mother.

Leland's parents, played by Spacey and Lena Olin, and the Pollard couple played by Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson, add an emotional element that reveals how reckless parents along with active and caring parents can both produce troubled teens. Spacey offers the most developed adult performance, playing off his signature cocky remarks and completely self-absorbed persona.

Gosling is chilling in his orange juvenile hall suit, and his wandering eyes imply thoughts racing in and out of his labyrinth of confusion. At the same time Leland is adjusting to life behind bars, Pearl (Don Cheadle) is his teacher and a wanna-be writer. The true motives of Pearl are to break a story in a non-fiction book about the mysterious murder case. The most interesting way the narrative complicates the conflict of the two characters is by contrasting the two. Pearl is lying to himself about his own life, and Leland can see right through him. Leland has made mistakes and is caged, while Pearl has the potential to make a big mistake. In some sense, the two need each other and ultimately survive by comforting one another through their communication.

Malone gives a standout performance, and captures the deception and low self-esteem in a teen character that is looking for her guardian angel. She needs someone to love her; her family does not understand her and the way she copes with reality deteriorates her mind.

Some viewers will have a problem with the film, opposing it because it becomes under-developed and lost by the end. Perhaps leaving the story open allows for a wider interpretation than most dysfunctional family films - but remember, this is about a horrific murder and might either appeal to audiences or completely annoy them. The problem with Leland is that his perspective of the world could appear unrealistic.

A cast of young talent, a strong supporting roster and award-winning, established actors tug at the heart and the conscience and clearly make the audience reflect on their own lives. This is a film that engages the audience and assumes that they are intelligent. The movie's adage, "life is more than the sum of its parts," surfaces multiple times throughout the plot, emphasizing its many layers.

Perhaps "The United States of Leland" is individual snapshots of memories, people and actions that Leland recalls throughout the story. All the people and all of his opinions about life are the parts or states that make up the sum. In other words, it's almost like Leland has this perspective which is so far from reality that it makes him an outcast; but at the same time, maybe he wants people to realize the problems in the world, and maybe his intentions are to change the world based on his one action.

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