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United States of Leland

2006-03-30 12:41


On an ordinary school day in California, a seemingly ordinary student named Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) commits a devastating, inexplicable crime. Sent to juvenile hall to await trial, Leland says little to clear up the mystery of why a young man of such promise would turn to cold-blooded violence; that is, until he meets Pearl (Don Cheadle), a compassionate but jaded teacher.

Pearl has never met anyone like Leland. The son of famous author Albert Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey), Leland had everything going for him. He seems like the last person on earth who would commit murder. Defying prison protocol, Pearl arranges to meet with Leland in a series of secret counselling sessions. As an aspiring writer, Pearl hopes to extract enough material from the sessions for his own novel.

Pearl pushes Leland to disclose the full background of his crime. Yet the more Pearl probes, the more clear answers evade his every attempt at understanding. But soon Leland starts to ask his own questions of Pearl. Why does Pearl do the immoral things he does, Leland asks? Pearl is secretly terrified that he does not have adequate answers for his own actions. Can he really justify any of the things he is doing: cheating on his girlfriend, breaking the juvenile prison's rules, exploiting Leland's delicate, hard-won friendship for a book?

When Leland realizes that Pearl is using him, their relationship comes to a head and Pearl now sees that he has a rare opportunity. He may never understand precisely why things went so terribly wrong for Leland Fitzgerald, but he can take inspiration from Leland's biggest regrets and deepest insights to change his own life for the better.

What the critics are saying:

"In spite of an exceptionally fine cast, this melodrama of suburban adolescent dysfunction never rises to the level of its literary ambitions."
- A.O. Scott, The New York Times

"A compelling, exquisitely acted drama about the shock waves emanating from -- and toward -- a single act of almost inexplicable violence."
- Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

"The movie's idiotic fascination with the senselessness of its central act is scarily close to a fetish."
- Dennis Lim, Village Voice

Virgin director Matthew Ryan Hoge has drafted an impressive cast to lend traction to his ambitious script. Alas he is not up to the task of marrying the two elements into a watchable whole, and the movie ends up wallowing in maudlin melodrama.

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