The budding teenage poet in Karen Moncrieff's Blue Car writes melancholy verse about autumn leaves falling off trees and fathers abandoning their daughters. Predictably, the girl's floundering mother is too harried and too strapped for cash to pay much attention to her, and her troubled little sister is endlessly needy. In other words, we've seen it all before -- the adolescent insecurity, the loneliness, the refuge an unhappy girl takes in writing sad, autobiographical poems.
But moviegoers whose acne has long since cleared up should think twice before turning away. Thanks to a beautifully detailed, star-making performance by newcomer Agnes Bruckner and a drama that takes an unexpectedly grown-up turn, Blue Car eventually transcends the overworked coming-of-age genre and examines the crucial juncture at which a young woman finds the courage to become herself and to set out as an artist. Melodramatic moments of truth come cheap in teen anxiety movies, but this one means something. I couldn't help recalling the late playwright Paul Zindel and director Paul Newman's wonderful yet all-but-forgotten 1972 film, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, in which a junior high school girl (played by Newman's then twelve-year-old daughter, Nell Potts) glimpses the poisonous effects of childhood trauma, and the strength she gets from surviving the poison.
Moncrieff, an actress familiar to soap opera addicts for her stints on The Guiding Light and Santa Barbara, also seems to have found her true calling with this extraordinary debut as a feature film writer and director. Like Meg, the troubled girl in her movie, she's very clearly breaking out of old traps.
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For young Agnes Bruckner (Murder By Numbers), it must have been an enormous help to come under the care of a director like Moncrieff, who knows the slings and arrows of the acting game as well as the hazards of growing up beautiful in America. On that accident of nature, in fact, much of Meg's fate turns in Blue Car. Along with babysitting her distressed mother (Margaret Colin) part of the time and her unhappy sister, Lily (little Regan Arnold), almost all of the time, Meg must also weather an ever more ambiguous relationship with the only adult in her life who shows her anything like respect and encouragement -- her English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn). Part surrogate father, part prod, Auster sees Meg's potential as a writer -- and her need -- while harboring all kinds of secret doubts about himself. Inspirational movie teachers have been a cinematic staple for six decades -- from Mr. Chips to Miss Jean Brodie to Mr. Holland -- but Strathairn's unsettling performance here as a mentor who can't help violating his young charge's trust won't win any prizes from the National Educational Association.
Meg faces assorted issues -- the absence of her father, Lily's deepening problems, trouble at her part-time job and all the rest -- with a stoicism that borders on the incredible in places. But the sternest test of all comes when she finally makes her way -- after many bumps in the road -- to a high school poetry contest in Florida. It's one of those life-changing events that turns out to change her life in ways she could never have imagined. Moncrieff's plotting tends toward formula here -- we see the big crisis coming a mile away -- but Bruckner's astonishing emotional range saves the day. In a gloomy motel room she provides enough agony to furnish three movies, and at the climactic poetry reading, all the release Meg has so dearly paid for. Teenagers all have troubles, we know that. Teenagers who can handle their problems with something like Meg's fierce conviction deserve more than literary awards. Any adolescent looking for an intelligent movie about growing up that refuses to wallow in sleaze or slob humor need look no further. Any parent who needs a jolt of reality -- don't most? -- would also do well to buy a ticket.
As for the principals of Blue Car (so-named, among several reasons, because Meg's father drove off in one), it's hard to imagine anything but blue skies in their futures. A veteran of the daytime TV wars, Karen Moncrieff has announced herself as a filmmaker with admirable gifts and an uncompromising eye. And it'll be a big surprise if Agnes Bruckner doesn't go on to become one of America's most accomplished and sought-after actresses.