feature

Poetry and Motion

Pin it

atching Blue Car is like reading the diary of the high-school girl you knew but never really spoke to, loved but never quite understood — it’s intimate and raw, relatable but revelatory. The film is the story of Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a high-school senior scarred by her parents’ divorce: she misses her father; resents her bitter, neglectful mother; barely tolerates her morose, self-mutilating younger sister Lily. When Meg’s poetry catches the attention of her English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), he encourages her to enter a national contest he’s judging. They establish a connection. Boundaries shift. The inevitable happens, then it unhappens.

promotion

Throughout, director Karen Moncrieff takes afterschool-special stereotypes — the Lolita, the teacher-student attraction, the single working mother, the distant father — and filters them through a prism of ambiguities. As a confused teen discovering the value of her sexual currency, Bruckner’s performance is amazingly pure: she mines truth from cliché like a junior Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven. The film might have its contrivances (Lily’s fate, in particular, is a made-for-TV eye-roller), but the performances Moncrieff elicits from her cast indicate she’s a director to be reckoned with. So I did, by phone, the week of the film’s opening. — Michael Martin

How did the story come about?
I was seeing cheesy coming-of-age films and getting really disgusted. I was also recollecting a time soon after my parents were divorced, when I was eight. I was reminded of the emotional terrain of that household soon after the divorce, and how lonely I felt. One of the things I remembered really clearly was that sense of loving both my parents and feeling caught between them. I felt like if I had a relationship with one of them, I would be betraying the other one. So I was interested in exploring that. At the time, I was in a poetry workshop. Most of us were adults, but there was one young girl who came. And there was something about her I found really compelling. I didn’t really know her. She seemed very shy and withdrawn and remained very isolated from the group. She would hunch over and draw on her jeans or on her hands, but when it was her time to read, she would stand up and read this beautifully written, accomplished poetry for someone her age. And then she would just slink back into her self-effacing posture. Something about her became the germ for Meg: I was maybe speaking to my younger self. I wanted to send a young woman on a journey as she sort of discovers herself, her own power.

What coming-of-age films bothered you?
Mr. Holland’s Opus, you know? Even a movie like Stealing Beauty. I like Bertolucci, but that film was supposed to be about a young girl’s experience, and it was clearly told from an older male perspective. I just thought, this filmmaker doesn’t know what it’s like to come of age as a young girl, and I do, and I haven’t seen it portrayed truthfully enough on screen. There have been some interesting portraits of girls, in French cinema and in other places. I just feel like there haven’t been many in American films.

As a teenager, what movies did you relate to?
I liked stuff like Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer, I think because they both deal with fractured families in some way. I found something I could identify with, something I didn’t see in a lot of movies around that time. When I was high school, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink were coming out, so I grew up on sugarcoated adolescence. I guess I wanted to offer another view that was, at least to me, a little more truthful about what the experience was like.

Our film-viewing backgrounds are pretty similar. I was really into Ordinary People and Kramer vs. Kramer when I was growing up, partially because they inverted the traditional critique of the broken family. The mother’s distant, and your sympathies are with the father. It’s the same with your film. Although you can understand why Meg’s mother acts the way she does, her failings are exposed in a unusually raw way.
That’s really interesting. I definitely didn’t set out to create a mother who was a monster, or one who was perfectly resourceful and would care for her family against all odds. I was trying to build the stakes for all of these characters. I don’t know that I was consciously inverting anything. I guess I wanted to create a portrait where you see both sides. You hear the mom say bad things about the dad, but you don’t completely believe everything she’s saying. Being with her mother, Meg feels she has to divest herself of her relationship with her father, and if she were to go with her father or take his side in anything, she feels that she loses a piece of her mother. I wanted to establish that, for Meg, there isn’t a safe place in her family that she can go.

You rarely see that in movies: usually it’s “parents vs. kids” or “kid vs. kid.” But in reality, sometimes one child aligns with one parent, another child aligns with the other. A weird team-loyalty thing develops.
Exactly.

How did Lolita affect the way you told this story?
Well, I guess I would put Lolita in with that group of coming-of-age stories I was talking about earlier. It’s more Humbert Humbert’s coming of age than Lolita’s. There’s a loss of innocence there — Lolita’s loss — that Nabokov is obviously dealing with, but again, it’s very much from a male perspective. The book, which I think is brilliant and I love, is very much the story of Humbert Humbert’s inner life. And I wanted to explore the flip side of that.

I don’t see the character of Meg as Lolita, although I know some people see her that way. As much as I admire the book, I never really understood where Lolita was coming from. I totally understood where Humbert Humbert was coming from; he’s very beautiful and vivid in his creepiness. But Lolita never really lived for me. I guess I just wanted to get inside the experience of a young woman who develops a relationship with an older man to fill the gaps that are left in her life by absent parents. I think that’s really seductive to a young girl who’s searching for that, then senses an older man is attracted to her. I’ve seen it play out so many times.

Really.
Oh, God, yes. So many times, so many times.

I had planned to ask if you had been in a relationship like Meg’s.
Oh yes, definitely. I had a teacher in high school who wrote me love poems and said he wanted to take me away to his island in Florida. As a kid, I was like, oh my God. Our relationship didn’t end up quite the same as Meg and Auster’s, but it was a powerful thing, a creepy thing. It was odd to feel that for the first time.

As a young girl in this world, you don’t feel very powerful. When you come into your sexual power for the first time, it’s a really intoxicating and seductive experience. You’re vulnerable; you can give your trust away to people who aren’t really trustworthy. In college, I knew a teacher who would pick a couple of freshman or sophomore girls every year and just go through them. He saw them as his protégés; he had a little Svengali thing going on there. I know it happens a lot, because as the movie’s been screening around, a lot of women have been saying, “This is my story.”

Watching those kind of relationships unfold on-screen tends to get creepy, as you said, but this didn’t creep me out until the climactic scene.
It’s funny, in earlier drafts of the script, Auster was more of a black cat. When I was revising the script, he came to life for me. I understood what brought him to a place where he was in a motel room with a young girl. I had investigated the forces in his life that led him there. Hopefully, by the end of the movie, you understand that, in many ways, he’s a mirror image of Meg ­ he is also longing for connection and for someone to believe in him. He’s put his own dreams away in the drawer for years, and, in seeing Meg, all of the possibility of his youth is suddenly rekindled in her. I just think that’s so human. I’ve also looked at people who are just starting out, and it’s so alluring, you know? People who are filled with hope and promise — that’s a seductive thing.

It seems that you really sympathize with Auster. As you’ve written him, he’s not … precisely … a sexual predator.
I really ended up feeling for him greatly. It’s interesting. People have seen the movie and become furious, just by virtue of the fact that I depicted this relationship. I think it’s obvious that if you see the movie, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing. You know as soon as they step into the hotel room, you know they’re not going to get what they need from each other.

Was Auster’s name a hat-tip to Paul?
I think it kind of is, inadvertently. I had never met him, and I have no reason to think there are similarities. But when I was writing the script, I had David Strathairn in mind. He had the salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes; he evoked the literary world to me. While I was writing, I was in a bookstore and was looking at a novel by Paul Auster and on the back cover there was a picture of him. I didn’t want to call my character Strathairn, so I named him Auster so it displaced it one degree.

Why didn’t you eroticize Meg? It’s never really clear that Auster appreciates her body, which he surely must have.
Good. Well, I’m glad. It’s interesting, because as an audience member we’re taught to sexualize young girls. Stealing Beauty was supposed to depict this coming-of-age experience, and I can remember seeing one long, up-and-down shot of Liv Tyler’s ass. I wanted to keep very strictly to Meg’s perspective, emotionally at least, because she doesn’t see herself that way.

Why not explore Meg’s past sexuality? Her innocence really tips the scales. Was it implausible that she would have sought out sex earlier?
I think we always thought she was a virgin, a late bloomer. She was sort of so withdrawn and struggling with her parents’ deal that she hadn’t really gone there yet. And to be completely truthful, when I wrote the script, Meg was a lot younger. She was sixteen. In the movie, she’s eighteen. There’s a big difference in those couple of years.

[Spoiler follows. Stop reading here if you don’t want to know the ending of the film.]

[Really. There is a spoiler below. You will encounter it in approximately one second.]

[You’ve been warned, no?]

Wouldn’t this have been a bolder film if Meg and Auster had ended up together?
It may have been a bolder film, but it wasn’t the film I wanted to write. I didn’t want to do a romance. I wanted Meg’s relationship with Auster to be the centerpiece of several challenging experiences that cause this girl to develop a sense of herself in the world. I didn’t want to hook her up with somebody; I felt that she was too young. I wanted her to stand firmly on her own two feet. If she went with Auster, she would be stunted. She wouldn’t be able to say, “Yes, I have this sexual power, but I choose when to wield it and when not to.” [laughs] I guess I just wanted her to be alone.  

Blue Car opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 2, and in other cities on later dates. To visit the film’s website, click here.

© 2003 Nerve.com.