Quiet films with a lot to say
Two of this week's indie releases, "Owning Mahowny" and "Blue Car," are good reminders that low-key filmmaking and truthful acting can easily outstrip big-studio eye candy.
In the acting department, there's nobody on the current scene with more sheer talent - or offbeat charisma - than Philip Seymour Hoffman, in whose bearish body nestles the heart of a lithe and limber artist.
Lately he's been taking on roles about addiction, most notably the mournful hero of "Love Liza," a tormented soul portrayed by Mr. Hoffman without a single false move.
Owning Mahowny follows a somewhat similar path, focusing on a mild-mannered banker whose passion for gambling masks a self-punishing personality with a penchant for self-destructive behavior.
Based on real events, the movie follows this unlikely antihero as he goes ever more deeply into debt, deceiving his oblivious employers and pushing the patience of his loyal girlfriend to its breaking point.
Refusing to be overly judgmental, Maurice Chauvet's screenplay depicts Mahowny as sad rather than bad - not a selfish sociopath but a profoundly afflicted man who dismays even his bewildered bookies with his inability to get his life under control. The only character who's really wicked is the casino manager who milks Mahowny for all he's worth, a money-driven entrepreneur who believes his own addiction to the bottom line is simply business as usual.
This is the second feature by Canadian director Richard Kwietniowsky, who brilliantly debuted with "Love and Death on Long Island," earning many awards in the process. It's taken six years for "Owning Mahowny" to reach the screen, and while his follow-up film isn't quite as stirring and original as his first, it's more than worth the wait.
Blue Car, written and directed by newcomer Karen Moncrieff, looks at a different kind of discontent.
The heroine is teenaged Meg, a bright high-schooler with dysfunctional parents and a mentally troubled sister. Her main comfort is the poetry she writes, which is good enough to make a sympathetic teacher steer her toward a poetry contest he thinks she can win. So far so good, until his feelings for her start to pass the limits of student-teacher propriety.
Ms. Moncrieff's low-key directing is matched by fine acting from Agnes Bruckner as Meg and David Strathairn as her mentor. Aside from a somewhat schematic climax, this is as smart a debut as we've seen in a long while.
• 'Owning Mahowny,' rated R, has gambling and vulgarity. 'Blue Car,' rated R, contains sex and innuendo.