LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL: Winner of the new Zeitgeist Award at the L.A. Film Festival, Stealing Cars feels like if Starred Up wanted to be Cool Hand Luke featuring Antoine-Olivier Pilon from Mommy. Both Stealing Cars and Mommy think their lead is hilarious, tragic and charming, and many of the latter’s fans agree, but I found Pilon unbearable. Not to reel Xavier Dolan’s film into this criticism, but both these films hinge on their protagonists. Swap Pilon for Emory Cohen for Stealing Cars and it’s a very quick reminder why most consider The Place Beyond The Pines troublesome in its third act. I’m concerned that Cohen may be too good at playing an irritating young criminal. I just like seeing him get punched.
The film opens with a clear homage to Cool Hand. Emory Cohen’s Billy steals a car, and the next scene we’re in a Burnville Camp For Boys, an analogy for life’s hardships. The film details his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards, various staff, warden, police, a female nurse at the facility, and his parents in any jumbled order that resembles a plot towards his potential rehabilitation. He makes enemies, earns sympathies, leads teams, impresses at the least likely times, and so on. It’s a script that’s been gestating since the mid-90s and it’s hard to ignore that it may have grown too kind to its protagonist. Billy mouths off to every authority figure and escapes three times without serious repercussions.
Set aside its clumsy character study and Stealing Cars does have good intentions in its portrayal of problematic detention facilities. Punishment only breeds deeper resentment and a desire to escape. It’d hit harder if its logic was as gritty as its style, though it’s not quite as rough as Starred Up. In one scene, Billy has memorized an entire passage of Fahrenheit 451 because of his photographic memory, and while characters are just as surprised as us, it feels like a step into the extraordinary that’s just tacked on. The warden makes cleaning his car a dream job for the inmates, as if that’s not asking for trouble. He’s then also astonished Billy knows Johnny Cash. Fortunately, these unconvincing examples are executed with such earnestness by director Bradley Kaplan that it doesn’t toe the line into nausea, and instead establishes this as merely the tone of the film.
It’s assisted by a set of familiar faces in the supporting adult cast. Paul Sparks is barely recognizable compared to his sniggering Boardwalk Empire role and a bright spark in the film as a drill sergeant-esque guard. William H. Macy shows his face briefly as Billy’s father and adds his screen presence to the film’s production value. Felicity Huffman has an emotional one-scene wonder as his mother that absolutely begs for more time with her character. Mike Epps also shines in his brief screentime. John Leguizamo is solid, but suffers the most from the aforementioned flaws in the writing. It’s hard to deny that Emory Cohen has the confidence for this role and his charisma isn’t necessarily misguided, he does contribute to the spirit of the film, it’s perhaps just a matter of taste. Stealing Cars probably wasn’t the wisest choice for L.A. Film Festival’s award, but I’m sure there were worse on the slate.