Celebrating 'L.I.E.', the Teen Movie That Understood Confused Gender Identity and Sexuality

On the 15th anniversary of Paul Dano's problematic cult classic, we look at how it brought LGBT issues to a mainstream audience.

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07 September 2016, 10:07am

Still from 'L.I.E.'

This week in 2001, only days before the Twin Towers fell, an odd little movie came out in cinemas. It was called L.I.E. and was replete with underwear sniffing, teenage hustlers and the most sympathetic paedophile to ever grace a screen.

Big John, as he is called, is like the Mrs Doubtfire of paedos. He chauffeurs around 15-year-old Howie Blitzer in his Oldsmobile 442, buys him lunch and picks him up from the police station when he gets into trouble. Despite his lust, Big John just wants to act the father figure. He ends up as the unlikely immoral foil for a boy who doesn't know how to navigate his own confusing sexuality. That a paedophile platonically supports a child's sexual self-discovery was weird enough, but worked at the time a way to explore the themes the film dealt with. But now, 15 years later, it feels so much more relevant than it did upon its release.

Sexually speaking, L.I.E. was unusually ahead of its time. Studies have shown that less than 50 percent of millennials identify as straight. But in 2001, only a handful of high-ish profile indies – Boy's Don't Cry, Edge of Seventeen, Beautiful Thing – dealt with the crippling adolescent anxiety and shame surrounding homosexuality.

Still from 'L.I.E.'

These simply weren't conversations we were having, even when shown on screen. L.I.E.– with its unapologetic pervert posturing and twink hustler narrative – got people talking. What this version offers is the notion that experimentation is the lifeblood of horny young teens. There is no set of rules for how we define ourselves, and we never, ever stop defining.

L.I.E. is about a teen wrestling with the uncomfortable fit of sexual identity. Howie Blitzer – played by a 16-year-old Paul Dano – has a sort of elfin, sapphic appeal. When he thinks no one is watching, Howie slathers on his dad's new girlfriend's lipstick, pouting in the mirror, spritzing himself with her perfume. It's an innocent moment of respite that triggers some realisation about his identity – one of many that populate the film's 97-minute runtime.

Still from 'L.I.E.'

"I'm OK for my size," Howie says, wearing just undies when his friend, a hustler named Gary, gives his naked body the up-and-down. "Don't get a complex," Gary casually replies. Howie discreetly watches Gary take a piss in public and deep-throat a handgun. It's visual innuendo that Howie responds to as a way to convey struggle without discussing it. He unknowingly wants to be like Gary, who turns tricks in a nearby park for cash. He doesn't understand his secret. Gary even makes a bid for them to run away together, freeing themselves of crushing societal constraints and, just maybe, living out their reprobate fantasy.

These are all significant events in any young life, testing the boundaries of a best friend and questioning one's own orientation; and the more risks Howie takes, the closer he gets to achieving a more concrete sense of who he is.

Still from 'L.I.E.'

The film isn't even necessarily a gay one. In fact, Howie's sexual preference is never mentioned outright. He doesn't even know himself. "The ambiguity of Howie's sexuality exists," the film's director Michael Cuesta said in an interview with Nitrate. "But to me, he doesn't know; he's exploring who he is. It's just palpable enough to put your own experience onto it rather than just define it, you know?"

That the film manages to skirt the term while wholly embracing the LGBT struggle is a feat, not simply because it created a more comfortable setting (this is 2001 we're talking about) in which minority issues could be ferried to a mostly straight audience.

"L.I.E. opened me up to a world of film that I frankly didn't know about, and that I started to feel really good about," Dano told Slant in a 2012 interview. "It seemed like people really cared about what they do, and I guess I like really interesting and challenging material, and a lot of it lies in that world."

Still from 'L.I.E.'

Paul Dano, who plays the film's main character Howie, is hugely underrated. He is usually a secondary character in his films, and so good at the roles he plays you often don't realise that you're watching Paul Dano in another movie. Recently, movie database Taste ranked actors based on who consistently appears in critically-acclaimed films. Dano topped the list, besting even Leonardo DiCaprio. For all his success following L.I.E., Dano is at his most vulnerable in his first role as Howie Blitzer. He won Best Debut Performance at the Independent Spirit Awards at 16 years old.

In Big John, Howie finds his hero, telling him, "You're like James Bond, except James Bond doesn't go around blowing boys." We finally see him own his individuality, both playing into Big John's lechery and confronting him as a cliche. The way in which L.I.E. discomfits its audience is perfect: watching it back, we're going through our own identity crises, it's a cathartic discomfort to experience. For a film that wasn't made for a gay audience, rife with problematic, perverse characters, it sure succeeds in giving a free pass to those youth who haven't yet figured out who they are or who they want to be. And that's a big deal for an odd little movie.

@treytylor

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