Don Cheadle is one of those actors who has been around for a long time but has taken a while to reach the successful position that he deserves. From his noteworthy role in Devil in a Blue Dress (opposite Denzel Washington) to his recent participation in the superior drama Crash, he has - almost without exception - been the best thing about the movies that he partakes in. This means that pretty much anything he partakes in is worth your time.
The United States of Leland is one of those very slow, brooding pot-boiler dramas that simmers along for an hour and a half until everything comes crashing to a conclusion which you may or may not see coming. It centres on Leland, a fifteen-year-old boy who stabs a young, mentally disadvantaged friend of his, seemingly for no apparent reason. Almost devoid of emotion, he sits out his time in prison awaiting his fate and being interviewed and counselled by a therapist who is keen on figuring out why this outwardly normal child committed such a heinous crime.
Through cleverly understated use of flashback, the story evolves of the life of this boy, his troubled love for a damaged girl Becky, who has drug problems, his affection for Becky's handicapped brother and his relationship (or lack thereof) with his own family, including an estranged celebrity author father who regards the whole tragedy as just another excuse to write a bestseller. The only vague friend he has appears to be Pearl, the therapist who (almost unbeknownst to him) has his own fair share of issues, most obviously an ability to blur the line between right and wrong with regards to his fidelity. As the drama evolves, these characters all get fleshed out - in particular those of Pearl and of Leland himself, whose strange view of good and bad is tellingly probably more admirable than those of the majority of the rest of the characters (and perhaps of society itself). The end result is a tough, bleak drama that is singularly exceptional in its portrayal of a youth who may or may not have seen the truth that all of the grown ups around him were unable to come to terms with.
The casting is inspired, not quite as stellar as Crash but definitely a group of names that you are likely to recognise. Don Cheadle has to be top of that list, playing the good-hearted Pearl - and, with his outstanding performance here, he does not break the pattern of being the most watchable actor in his movies. Then there's Kevin Spacey as the estranged father, an arrogant, self-proclaimed pain-in-the-ass who wants desperately to care about the fate of his child beyond how many books it will sell. It's an unusual role for Spacey and he plays it off as the darker side of his American Beauty counterpart. Martin Donovan convincingly plays the distraught father of the murdered child, Lena Olin gets woefully underused as Leland's own distraught mother, Jena Malone is both irritatingly stupid and desperately sympathetic as Leland's troubled girlfriend Becky, Chris Klein tries his hardest to actually act as Becky's concerned elder brother and Michelle Williams does her duty as his girlfriend, although she still has not truly grown out of Dawson's Creek. It should also be worth noting an all-but uncredited cameo by Sherilyn Fenn playing a warm heart who helps Leland out in his time of need. Of course there's also Leland himself, skilfully underplayed by Ryan Gosling (although he blatantly doesn't look fifteen).
All in all, The United States of Leland is well worth your time. It may not seem very appealing, may not have been advertised or promoted in any particularly spectacular fashion and it is certainly not going to have you laughing and smiling throughout but it is a worthy story fleshed out by some spectacular performances. Quiet, low-key and understated, it is another one of those dramas that have something important to say and as such it strongly merits a viewing.
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