Published Apr 01, 2004With its interconnected characters mired in tragedy and the dreamy quality of the direction, The United States of Leland is sort of like Magnolia for the teenage set. The story revolves around the killing of a mentally-challenged boy (Michael Welch) by the film's title character (The Believer's Ryan Gosling), which lands Leland in a juvenile detention centre and destroys the lives of both his and the victim's family. While behind bars, Leland is befriended by his teacher Pearl (Don Cheadle), an aspiring writer whose interest in the youth is not purely altruistic.
Director Matthew Ryan Hoge wrote this script based on his own experience teaching in a California juvenile detention centre. The point he's trying to make (which he sometimes hits you over the head with) is that there are no stock answers for these horrible crimes, no monsters to blame, just surprisingly ordinary and all-too familiar kids who make terrible, incomprehensible mistakes. It's an interesting and refreshing take on the often sensationalised moral quagmire of teen violence. It's also a well-crafted film, with a non-linear storytelling technique that reveals the events and relationships piece by piece.
The cast of the movie is a phenomenal who's who of American indie film, at least partially due to Kevin Spacey's role as producer. In addition to Gosling's compelling turn as the detached yet vulnerable Leland and the infinitely watchable Cheadle as his teacher, the film features Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson as the victim's parents, young stars Chris Klein, Michelle Williams and Jena Malone as Leland's peers, and Lena Olin and Spacey himself as his parents. (Paramount Classics)