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BLUE CAR ****

By GUY FLATLEY


CAST: Agnes Bruckner, David Strathairn, Margaret Colin, Frances Fisher, A.J. Buckley, Regan Arnold, Sarah Beuhler, Amy Benedict

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Karen Moncrieff

Stunned by the break-up of her parents’ marriage, 18-year-old Meg bickers with her mother, tries not to feel abandoned by her father, and trudges with very little enthusiasm through her senior high-school year in a colorless suburb of Ohio. Without Mr. Auster, her life would be a vast slab of gray. Mr. Auster, thanks to some quirk of providence, is the English teacher who perceives Meg’s pain and frustration and, most important, her gift for poetry. Encouraged by her mentor, she enters a student poetry contest, and qualifies for the national competition in Florida. And there, in the sunshine state—in a tacky motel bedroom, less than a mile from where his wife lies sleeping--Meg discovers the naked heat of Mr. Auster’s passion for her.

The plot of "Blue Car" may sound cliched, even soap-operatic. But in reality this is a fresh, compassionate, uncompromising film, one that never stoops to sentimentality, faux lyricism or blurry moralizing. Moncrieff’s vision is clear, hard and substantial and, in the end, we feel deeply for the stubborn, frequently irresponsible Meg, just as we come to accept, if not quite applaud, the furtive, unfulfilled Mr. Auster. All of the characters--from Meg and Mr. Auster (played with breathtaking precision by the astonishing Agnes Bruckner and David Strathairn) to Meg’s self-centered mother (Margaret Colin) to her younger, self-mutilating sister (Regan Arnold) to Mr. Auster’s bitchy wife (Frances Fisher)—are flawed but, at least to some degree, tenacious and brave.

Praise is due to every actor in this surprisingly polished gem, and especially to writer-director Karen Moncrieff, who finishes first with "Blue Car" on her very first time in the driver’s seat.