The murder mystery at the center of this overly plotted but beautifully acted movie is not the who but the why.
Leland (Ryan Gosling) seems like a reasonably pleasant and easy-going kid. And then one day he kills a developmentally disabled boy, the brother of his girlfriend. It isn’t that no one seems to know the reason. It seems that there just was no reason. Leland had always been polite to everyone and kind and gentle with the boy, volunteering to walk him home from school.
A cop dismisses Leland as just another SFK (sick f-ing kid). But he does not seem angry or violent or unstable. He does not even seem upset. He is cooperative and truthful, so placid that his affect is almost entirely flat.
In the juvenile facility where Leland is put in “special treatment,” he hands his teacher an American history workbook. He has amended the cover to say “The United States of Leland.” The teacher, a frustrated writer named Pearl (Don Cheadle), is intrigued. Pearl is stuck in his own writing and cannot find a way to tell his own story. He thinks maybe he will be able to tell Leland’s.
Leland’s father (co-producer Kevin Spacey) is also a writer, a very successful novelist who can write about people with enormous sensitivity and compassion but is aloof, even merciless in his interactions with other people. He cannot do much to help Leland, but he can stop Pearl from appropriating and exploiting his story.
But Leland wants someone to listen, and Pearl is all he has. Will Pearl, or Leland’s father, or Leland himself understand why Leland committed such a terrible crime? Will we? Or is knowing that we cannot really know what matters?
I am not sure even the people who made the movie have the answer to that one. The script has the overheated, overblown, over-everything feel of an actor’s exercise extravaganza. Each character has some major emotional challenge and it gets overloaded and distracting. But the individual moments, especially Gosling’s performance, are sensitive and moving and the issues of the damage we inflict on ourselves and each other are worth examining, even less than successfully.
Parents should know that this movie has very mature themes. A teenager murders a developmentally disabled boy. Characters drink (reference to alcohol abuse), smoke, take drugs (a teenager is addicted to heroin), and use extremely strong language. There are sexual references and situations.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Leland showed no emotion about what he did. Why was telling the story important to him? Why eas it important to Pearl? What did Leland’s father want for Leland? Why was Mrs. Calderon so important to Leland? What does the story of Pearl’s name tell us?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Ordinary People, Manic (also starring Cheadle), The River’s Edge, Permanent Record, and Eqqus.