Karen Moncrieff's Blue Car is a story of domestic disequilibrium told through a young girl's eyes that skillfully registers divorce's impact, especially on children. The sensitively wrought study in girl ennui follows Meg (Agnes Bruckner) and her sister Lily (Regan Arnold) as they adjust to their parents' recent split, and it conveys with appropriate gravity how devastating this upheaval is.
Deposited by their already vaporous father on the doorstep of their mother's new apartment building, Meg and Lily spend the remainder of the unrelentingly despondent film not recovering from the shock.
Younger sister Lily is a tiny Ophelia in freckles and bright green rain slicker worn constantly like a protective turtle's shell. She self-mutilates and starves herself in response to her father's abandonment. Meg takes a healthier approach to her suffering, creating poetry from the ruins of her family.
Meg's troubled artistic life is awakened when she drafts a poem that attracts the notice of her AP English teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn). Mr. Auster encourages Meg to enter the poem in a national contest and begins coaching her after school. He soon becomes involved in her personal life as well, showing up to comfort her when Lily goes into the hospital, or when Meg runs away from home.
Most will quickly sense just where this relationship is going, since Meg is undeniably beautiful and Mr. Auster seems strangely interested in having her dredge up her anxieties in a way that begins to feel more predatory than creative. Part of the certainty of trouble looming on the horizon is Strathairn, who has practically built a career on sexual predation. From the incest drama Dolores Claiborne to L.A. Confidential, Strathairn's practiced bag of tricks runs from sensitive coaxing to wolfish lust -- his soft male features can go from gentle to rotten with astounding suddenness.
Blue Car might have had the creepy, ambiguous texture of Joyce Chopra's Smooth Talk, but instead it remains predictably grim and dramatically straightforward as Moncrieff sticks to a fairly expected narrative path for much of the film.
Mr. Auster keeps imploring Meg to "go deep" in her poem, but director Moncrieff never follows that advice in her approach to this potentially powerful subject matter.
Beyond the act of lusting after his student, little is known about Mr. Auster's life. Moncrieff uses mostly class-based signifiers to illustrate Mr. Auster's distance from Meg and her troubled world. He is from a higher social class because he eats rosemary bread, has a nice house and drives an expensive car but is otherwise unreadable beyond such social class ticks. One hopes for some sign of pretense, or narcissism, or anything that might complicate his character and make him more than a one-note wolf in teacher's clothing who drives his own Saab through the holes in Meg's heart. And the film's denouement regarding the "novel" he carries in a leather-bound book is a little too perfect.
Moncrieff, who began her career directing soap operas, clearly has the technique of storytelling down and a rare sensitivity to the material. But bringing out any complexity beneath the surface or any sense of urgency beyond the basic details of the plot seems an essential problem in Blue Car. Moncrieff's aim is true, and the melancholy ambience is authentically dire, but there is a missing component here. Moncrieff, who also wrote the script, clearly cares deeply about her protagonist, but getting her audience to follow suit eludes her reach.