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That '70s Show: Agnes Bruckner and David Strathairn play student and teacher, respectively, in 'Blue Car.'

Teacher's Pet

'Blue Car' is a young poet's story

By Richard von Busack

A MOROSE TITLE like Blue Car suggests a shoegazing boutique film, yet it has claws, as well as a lucid performance by Agnes Bruckner as Meg, a suburban Ohio girl with problems. Bruckner makes a considerable impression. She's perfect as a girl of about 16, still childish and impulsive, with chipped black polish on her fingernails.

Meg is weathering her parents' bad divorce, which her mother has worsened by demonizing the dad. Her mom--forcefully and honestly played by Margaret Colin--is working days and goes to school at night, so Meg is obliged to adopt a caretaker role for her bright, troubled little sister. Meg tries to shape the limbo she lives into poetry. And the only person reaching out for her is her English teacher Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), who urges the girl to try for a national writing competition in Florida. She wins the semi-finals but circumstances block her from going. Meg turns to petty crime to get bus fare. In the South, she links up with her teacher, but there's disillusionment in store.

Karen Moncrieff's script has the authenticity of first-hand experience however it's her lack of experience as a director that shows. Blue Car is the result of a 20-day shooting schedule in Ohio and in Oxnard, doubling for Florida. You're jolted by a shot where the light is drastically unmatched from the one before. In another moment, Meg goes looking for her father after a crisis; in the next scene, no father, and no explanation. Strathairn ought to have been restrained a little as Auster; he comes on too strong, his hypnotic eyes boring into his student. If he'd dimmed those headlights, bearing down on this paralyzed deer of a girl, there'd be more of a surprise in store for us when the two collide.

This is yet another indie film that has a specifically '70s feeling to it--the story seems like more like the '70s, when student/teacher liaisons were more common and less legally fearful than now. The deal with the '70s was that the adults were acting like children, and the children were acting like adults. So they ended up meeting in the middle a lot. Even the symbolic car of the title--it was the car Meg's father drove when he left them--is a big '70s jalopy.

At its worst moments, Blue Car echoes with the noise of an axe being ground, of a writer's revenge on a mentor who betrayed her. Still, the valuable advice Auster gives Meg early on when her poetry is too plaintive and Jewel-y is "you can go deeper." As worthwhile as Blue Car is, it's not unfair to suggest that's the way Moncrieff should go.

Blue Car (R; 96 min), written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, starring David Strathairn, Agnes Bruckner, Margaret Colin, Frances Fisher, Sarah Beuhler and Amy Benedict, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the May 15-21, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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