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Conor Donovan as Jacob Carges
Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee Chung
Jesse Camacho as Leonard Fisher
Jeremy Renner as Gus Maitland
Annabella Sciorra as Carla Chung
Linus Roache as Jim Carges
Jayne Atkinson as Ashley Carges
Michael C. Fuchs as Kenny
Martin Campetta as Jeff
Marcia DeBonis as Grace Fisher
Tom McGowan as Patrick Fisher
Joseph Foster as Keith Gardner
Jessica Sorto as Sara Fisher
Bruce Altman as Coach Gilmore
Mark Linn-Baker as Mr. Farmer
Tony Roberts as Doctor
Bianca Ryan as Singing Girl
Michael A. Siravo IV as Guitar Guy
Directed by Michael Cuesta
This uniquely powerful coming-of-age film further solidifies Michael Cuesta's talents for telling realistic stories about adolescence.
Three young kids in New Jersey deal with the death of their friend in different ways: after the accidental murder of his brother, Jacob (Conor Donovan) torments the bullies responsible, while Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) develops a crush on a much-older construction worker (Jeremy Renner) and the overweight Leonard (Jesse Camacho) decides to change his life and lose weight. All of them have to overcome these obstacles, beginning with a lack of support from their parents.
The latest coming-of-age drama from director Michael Cuesta ("L.I.E.") starts out a lot like "Stand By Me," the movie that it's invariably going to be compared to by lazy critics such as myself. Somewhere along the way though, it shifts gears and gets more into Todd Solondz territory, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" in particular, as it tries to show real kids dealing with real issues and emotions without holding back or pulling its dramatic punches.
There are four kids in the group of Jersey friends: identical twin brothers Rudy and Jacob, the latter who wears a hockey mask to cover a glaring birth mark which covers half his face, Leonard the overweight punching bag, and Malee, Asian, brainy and far-too-mature-for-her-own-good. Rudy, the more outgoing of the two brothers learns that two bullies plan on destroying their treehouse, so he camps out there in the middle of the night to try to protect it only to come to a tragic end by accident.
Rudy's death greatly affects all of them, and at a certain point in the film, the three friends, who seemed inseparable, are off dealing with their own problems: Jacob, the most affected by his brother's accidental death, starts to visit the two perpetrators in juvenile hall, tormenting them with words, but eventually, he becomes closer with one of them because Jacob is in fact the only person who visits him. Leonard's desire to lose weight puts him at odds with his parents, forcing him to stage an intervention for his obese mother, which almost leads to tragic results. Meanwhile, Malee develops a crush on Gus, a former fireman who has been getting therapy from her single mother, played by Isabella Sciorra. After eavesdropping on their sessions, Malee does everything she can to get Gus' attention including performing Gus' favorite song, Blue Oyster Cult's "Burning For You," for him at her school talent show. This is just one of the strange and eccentric moments that reminded me of Todd Solondz's only halfway-decent film, but it also works to show how driven Malee is to get what she wants.
Unlike "L.I.E", Cuesta didn't write the film, but it takes vision to be able to find what makes the screenplay by first-time writer Anthony Cipriano so resonant to anyone who grew up in the suburbs, then turn those feelings into something memorable and indelible. Cuesta's ability to find talented newcomers is also impressive, as the three young actors are able to capture your attention while playing their characters so naturally.
This is a very different role for Jeremy Renner from the chauvinist pig he played in last year's "North Country," but he shows a great deal of sensitivity and vulnerability. Still, Zoe Weizenbaum uses her precocious charm to repeatedly steal their scenes together. Gus obviously has been through some great ordeal that has traumatized him, but he finds a friend in Malee, despite knowing of her inappropriate feelings for him. Though this sort of reverse-pedophilic relationship would usually bother me, the scenes between the duo are fun and touching, turning Malee's misguided desires into an innocent and sweet friendship. In one scene, she breaks into his small apartment, and then hides as he comes home drunk and breaks down crying in the shower. In those moments, where we worry that he's going to turn around and find her, Cuesta shows how masterful he is at creating tension in what might have been a throwaway scene in the hands of any other director.
The other two young actors were also good, with Conor Donovan's dual role being particularly impressive, especially in the few moments where he instills humor into some tough situations. Both he and Jesse Camacho are equally worth watching, much like Cuesta's young "L.I.E." cast. Isabella Sciorra's part is very small, but it leads to a pivotal moment where she and her daughter finally face-off, as she realizes that much of her daughter's actions come from her separation from her father.
Not to say that the movie is perfect, because there are certainly moments that drag, but for the most part, the movie always keeps you on your toes never allowing you to suspect what might happen next.
The Bottom Line:
Like many indie films, it takes a certain open-mindedness to appreciate this youth drama for what it is. Still, you can't help but be impressed by the talented young cast assembled by Cuesta, particularly Zoe Weizenbaum, and the way Cuesta and Cipriano have constructed these stories about the most delicate pre-teen year.