In the juvenile detention center where he is being held as he awaits trial, Leland meets Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher and aspiring writer who engages Leland in a series of interviews, ostensibly to help the boy when in reality he smells a book. It is in these encounters that Pearl attempts to answer the question “Why?” but, at the same time, is forced to confront his own morally questionable lifestyle.
Gosling's performance is especially affecting, but he is also supported by a talented young cast that includes his peers Chris Klein, Jena Malone and Michelle Williams, who deftly pilot their characters through their own anguished arcs, which are catalyzed by Leland's actions.
All of which emanate from writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge's wonderful, powerful script. In conversation and in voiceover from his journal, called “The United States of Leland,” Leland challenges one's perceptions of right and wrong, the emotional state of most of the world and religious conceits. While he initially muses, “Maybe God's there because people are afraid of all the bad stuff they do,” Leland ultimately concludes, “Maybe we're really scared of the good stuff. If there is no God, that means it's inside of us, and we could be good all of the time if we wanted.” It's a profound statement, penned by Hoge, who based the film on his experiences working in the Los Angeles juvenile hall system. Just as insightful is Leland's ultimate revelation that he killed the boy “because of the sadness” he sees in everyone's eyes. He wanted to save the child from it.
Hoge emulates Leland's skewed view of the world with a novel visual technique. As Leland winks one eye shut, then the other, his perception changes, as does the audience's. It's a subtle touch that fuses the cinematic palette with Hoge's eloquent storytelling. Starring Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey and Michelle Williams. Directed and written by Matthew Ryan Hoge. Produced by Kevin Spacey, Bernie Morris, Palmer West and Jonah Smith. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Rated R for language and some drug content. Running time: 108 min