The United States of Leland

Why do teenagers attempt suicide? That question is posed in The United States of Leland, directed and written by Matthew Ryan Hoge. Leland Fitzgerald (played by Ryan Gosling), a high school student in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, kills Ryan Pollard (played by Michael Welch), a sixteen-year-old autistic boy, and then attempts suicide before he is arrested, and jailed in Juvenile Hall, where boys are locked down in solitary rooms each night, awaiting trial. When asked why he did what he did, he enigmatically says, “Because of the sadness.” From the moment he kills the boy until he meets Pearl Madison (played by Don Cheadle), the prison’s high school teacher, Leland is in a daze. Madison, a budding writer, senses that Leland’s story could be made into a great novel, so he gets him to open up, albeit very gradually. In class, Madison gives him a textbook, The United States, onto the cover of which he writes “of Leland P. Fitzgerald,” but prison rules prevent students from checking textbooks out of class. Realizing that Leland is in a state of trauma, Madison tries to get him to heal the wound by talking about his feelings, and much of the film shuttles back and forth between recollections of the past and his current state of mind. Leland grew up in a family with little emotional support, which Madison is now trying to supply. But just when Madison is on the verge of succeeding in his after-school conversations with Leland, his prison boss transfers him to another facility, presumably because he has overfraternized with a prisoner. A major source of Leland’s problem is that his father Albert T. Fitzgerald (played by Kevin Spacey) is a famous writer who is on the road most of the time; when he realizes that his son has gone astray, he does not even visit him in prison, preferring to get drunk to drown his guilt. His loving mother, Marybeth Fitzgerald (played by Lena Olin), is also ineffective in helping with Leland’s problems as a teenager. Leland had hoped to find an attachment with a girlfriend, drug-addicted Becky (Jena Malone), but when she drops him for another guy, he is crushed, unable to understand why he has been spurned, and she is unwilling to re-start the relationship. Then Leland takes out his frustration on his girlfriend’s brother Ryan, but he does not seem to remember what he has done or why. Angered that such a murder has taken place, Allen (played by Chris Klein), the boyfriend of Becky’s and Ryan’s older sister, inexplicably decides to rob a store so that he will be arrested, jailed in the same youth facility, and then will get his bizarre revenge on Leland. The film attempts to demonstrate why young people can suffer mental collapse while adults have no idea what they are thinking. One of the subplots even deals with Madison’s own personal difficulties, thus again making the obvious point that communication breakdowns can have disastrous consequences, though he is the only one who takes appropriate action as soon as he realizes his mistake. However, the flashback method presents the message in so many small and often boring slices that some filmviewers may walk out midway during the movie. A linear presentation would have made much more impact. MH

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