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IN THE PASSING LANE

L.I.E. ***

STARRING: Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman

DIRECTOR: Michael Cuesta

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: NC-17 for strong language, adult situations and brief depictions of sexual activity and nudity.

THE LOWDOWN: A Long Island teen turns to a most unlikely father figure after his best friend and father abandon him.

"L .I.E.," the title of Michael Cuesta's first feature film, refers to the Long Island Expressway, a six-lane commuter road that's as bland and functional as the neighborhoods it connects. While motorists who use this vast swath of asphalt tend to take it for granted, the movie's central character fixates on its history of fatal car crashes.

Will Howie be the L.I.E.'s next victim?

That's the question Cuesta poses - though he means a spiritual death rather than a literal one - in this gritty and provocative take on suburban life.

Just as Larry Clark did in the summer release "Bully," Cuesta tells his story from the vantage point of suburbia's most disaffected young residents. In so doing, he, too, creates a portrait of middle-class adolescence that includes clueless parents, confused sexuality and reckless criminal acts. Yet unlike Clark's relentlessly bleak vision, "L.I.E." offers glimmers of hope, maps out of the morass for those who choose to follow them.

Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) could use any help he could get. His mother recently died; his dad ( Bruce Altman), a wealthy but corrupt owner of a construction company, has wasted no time hooking up with a bimbo. Turning to another dysfunctional male role model, Howie becomes enchanted with Gary (Billy Kay), the charismatic leader of a high school burglary ring. Just as their friendship looks like it's moving to a deeper level, Gary runs away, leaving Howie to answer for a recent breaking and entering to the neighborhood pedophile.

Howie's at his most vulnerable - in short, an ideal target for Big John (Brian Cox). But then, the unexpected happens. Just when it looks like Big John will take advantage of Howie, he takes him under his wing. As much as Howie arouses Big John sexually, the boy brings out a conflicting desire in the ex-Marine: to do right by him.

Big John's intentions are unclear from one moment to the next - even to himself. Such ambiguity keeps the audience on tenterhooks. We never know whether the next frame will make us cringe or, believe it or not, warm our hearts.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a set of glaring faults. Howie's father is woefully underdeveloped, the drama is bogged down by unnecessary scenesr and most disappointingly, the movie wraps up a key subplot with soap opera-style vengeance.

But to his credit, Cuesta pulls off what few in the suburban disenchantment genre even attempt. His Dix Hills is a town where hope springs up in unexpected places. And if you know which direction you're heading, the L.I.E. will take you where you want to go.

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