Watching Matthew Ryan Hoge's The United States Of Leland—a Sundance sensation one year removed—is like wandering through a reunion of the last five years' worth of Entertainment Weekly "It List" honorees. There's Chris Klein, playing an orphaned high-school athlete living in the house of his girlfriend, Michelle Williams; there's Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson as Williams' parents, and Jena Malone as her drug-addicted sister. Lena Olin plays the single mother of spacey teen Ryan Gosling, who's fighting against becoming a misanthrope like his absentee father, a literary star played by Kevin Spacey. And, after Gosling inexplicably murders a retarded boy that he'd recently befriended, Don Cheadle shows up as a juvenile-detention teacher and aspiring writer who sees in Gosling the makings of a great book.
Hoge, who scripted and directed The United States Of Leland, caters to his cast too much. He gives almost every character a way-too-involved subplot, which distracts from the heart of his story: the conversations between Cheadle and Gosling. The United States Of Leland sparkles whenever Hoge pushes aside the narrative clutter and catches well-defined moments, like Cheadle's realization that Gosling isn't like the other JD drones in his flatly institutional classroom, or Gosling and Malone's exchange about the scent of her hair. Hoge has a strong visual sense, and he frames suburban homes, hotel bars, courtrooms, and prison cells with an eye toward what each light source and color swatch means to the people occupying that space.
But aside from some scattered alternative-rock songs, the film's soundtrack mostly features the kind of droning acoustic/electric-guitar atmospherics that have become an American independent-film cliché. And Gosling's affectless, faux-naïf voiceover narration—with its shallow observations on why people rely on God and how all relationships are doomed to end in tears—becomes increasingly insufferable once Hoge begins lining up his characters for the inevitably ironic finale. Gosling's musings on how terrible the world is (and yet how wonderful, and so on) is too much like Son Of American Beauty, an appropriate tag for a movie in which nearly everything feels out of date.