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The United States of Leland

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What we have in “The United States of Leland” is a pessimistic film with the aura of an optimistic one. The glossy cinematography, the acoustic guitar soundtrack, the themes of life and death — it all sounds like something that will be affirming and redemptive. Yet its ultimate point, I swear, is that once you’ve done something wrong, there’s no way of undoing it.

I like this movie. I like that it has these themes, yet doesn’t wallow in its pessimism. Ryan Gosling plays Leland P. Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old boy who, as the film begins, has stabbed a retarded boy to death. From there the film, smartly written and directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge, unfolds on two timelines, one showing the aftermath of the murder, the other showing the events preceding it.

Leland says in voice-over, “I know what they want from me. They want a why, they want a reason.” His implication is that we’re not going to get one; indeed, even he doesn’t seem clear on why he did it. The film is not about what causes a young person to kill. It’s about human nature, which is prone to making mistakes, and how those mistakes often cause other people to err, too, in response to the wrongs we’ve done them. It’s about the never-ending cycle of man’s inadvertent inhumanity to man. “You have to believe that life is more than the sum of its parts,” someone says. Unfortunately, the person who says it doesn’t actually believe it, and neither does anyone else in the film. We in the audience ought to try to believe it; the movie seems to hope we will adopt a better attitude than the characters we’re observing.

Gosling excels at playing isolated young men, and his work as Leland is fantastic, imbuing him with sadness and a slight dopiness that is endearing — yes, endearing, for a guy who killed a retarded kid. The father of the victim refers to Leland as a monster, and we can certainly see where he’s coming from. But at the same time, Leland is an uncommonly sensitive boy who seems unlikely to harm anyone.

The teacher at the juvenile hall, Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), notices Leland’s introspective qualities and the apparent dichotomy in a boy this good having done such an awful thing. He looks for answers and hopes to find them in Leland’s father, Albert (Kevin Spacey), a detached, sardonic author who left the family when Leland was young and has lived in France ever since. (Spacey is not a major figure in the film, but he lights up the screen every time he appears.)

Part of the film’s intrigue comes from the way Hoge reveals things to us. We meet all the central characters — including Leland’s girlfriend (Jena Malone) and her family — immediately, but we learn all their relationships to each other gradually.

Just after committing the murder, Leland tells his mother, “I think I made a mistake.” That statement and its variations are repeated often throughout the film by most of the characters. They all, and we all, make mistakes. Whether we dwell on them or rise above them is the issue, and “The United States of Leland” addresses that question with compassion and insight.

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some drug use, some violence.)