I was a freshman in college when I first saw Oleanna, and even then it scared me. David Mamet's dialogue-intensive, two-character play about a teacher (William H. Macy) who offers a student extra help, only to have her turn the tables on him, was a frightening example of how easily exploited a do-gooder can be. I have not revisited the film since that first viewing, and I am now even more unlikely to, due to how I've spent the time since: as a public high school teacher.
So it was with some trepidation that I drew myself to Blue Car, a 2002 film starring David Strathairn and Agnes Bruckner as a teacher and a student who find themselves crossing into forbidden territory. When Reese Witherspoon did so in Election, it was funny; in this drama, not so much. I learned through early advice and common sense to never be alone with a student, so to see Strathairn offer Bruckner a ride struck me as either outlandish or malevolent. The experience was made all the more intimate because I watched the first half of the movie in my car. When Mr. Auster gives Meg a ride home, I was literally in the car with them. Later scenes had me cringing to the point of wanting to turn the movie off.
But ultimately, this relationship is only a plot device for the evolution of the main character. The movie is truly about young Meg Denning and how everyone in her life wants something from her. Only her English teacher sees Meg's inner beauty, and in that context does Meg shine — but even that attraction proves superficial. And when your student looks like a young Jeri Ryan or Kristanna Loken, that might even be understandable. But since this American Beauty tale is told from the perspective of the student and not a lecherous Kevin Spacey, any fashionable interpretations of a midlife crisis go out the window. She might look nice, but here we can see the many other challenges we forget today's teenagers must cope with when we examine our own pasts with rose-tinted glasses: an estranged father, balancing school with work to help Mom pay the rent, being caretaker to an ill sibling. Meg is a poet, so it should be no surprise that the titular blue car is a metaphor for abandonment — not just of people, but of youth. In this, the film succeeds in presenting a familiar concept in a package so unexpectedly original, you may at first not recognize it.
The DVD contains deleted scenes which were smartly removed but are still worth watching. My favorite line comes from a minor character who was written out of the main story entirely, yet he proves a stark contrast to the other players: "Meg, you're a beautiful girl — but you're a girl, and I don't want to have sex with you." If only all adults could be so forthright: there are times that even sensitivity can be misconstrued. No "Play All" option exists for these scenes.