Writer-director Karen Moncrieff's startlingly strong debut is a poignant drama about an introspective Ohio high-school senior attempting to forge her own identity while her family disintegrates around her. At an age when most young women have begun thinking about their futures, 18-year-old Meg (Agnes Bruckner) has run aground on the grim, day-to-day reality of the present. Ever since her parents' separation, Meg has found herself taking on more responsibility around the cramped apartment she shares with younger sister, Lily (Regan Arnold), and their mother, Diane (Margaret Colin). Preoccupied with work and angling for a promotion she hopes will make life easier, Diane leaves the apartment early and comes home late, leaving Meg to look after the fragile Lily, who's having trouble coping with her father's disappearance. Lily has become obsessed with stories of angels and martyrs, and she's stopped eating; one night, Meg catches her cutting herself and rubbing salt into her wounds. Meg channels her own feelings about her father into the poems she writes for her advanced placement English class; one, entitled "Blue Car," uses the battered, light blue Pontiac in which her father drove away as its central image. Impressed by Meg's obvious talent, her teacher, Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), encourages Meg to enter "Blue Car" into a contest sponsored by the Ohio State Discovery Project for Young Poets. The grand prize is a $3,000 scholarship, and Mr. Auster even offers to tutor her privately during lunch. Fearing her mother won't be able to afford the trip to Florida where the finals are being held, Meg nevertheless sees the contest as a way of fulfilling her dreams of becoming a writer, and Mr. Auster as caring substitute for her absent father. Mr. Auster, a once-promising writer who has suffered a tragic loss of his own, encourages the intimacy between them, and the lines separating teacher from student, father-figure from would-be daughter, are soon blurred and betrayed. Moncrieff's film, which played to widespread critical acclaim at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, unfolds like an expertly written short story that lies somewhere between the precocious realism of My So-Called Life and the lost-father fiction of Mona Simpson. A few key moments feel slightly rushed, but that's a quibble considering that the entire film was shot in 20 days. More important is that Moncrieff offers a rare, unromantic take on female adolescence as sharp as a razor: It cuts right to the bone.
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