A review of “The United States of Leland” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: **

Rating: R for violence and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes



The suburban drama goes dark while probing the aftermath of an inexplicable crime.

Quiet student Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) is the last person you’d expect to commit a shocking crime.  When a mentally challenged boy is murdered on the school playground, all fingers point at this introspective young man, now interred at juvenile hall to await trial.

The question is why?  Why would this ordinarily friendly boy turn to cold-blooded violence?  The situation demands a solution, preferably tied up with a bow. Leland’s compassionate prison English teacher (Don Cheadle as Pearl) comes to the rescue, developing a bond with Leland and delving into the recesses of his potentially troubled mind.  But jaded novelist Pearl has a hidden agenda: to write a tell-all about the tragic events and jumpstart his stagnant career.

As the film reveals the accomplices to Leland’s troubled past – his drug-addicted girlfriend / sister of the victim (Jena Malone) and his absentee celebrity father (Kevin Spacey), Leland becomes something of a local martyr.  A brilliant young man who didn’t stand a chance from the word go. 

Leland tries hard – too hard – to make its point. A moody sense of alienation based on a lack of discipline. The moral dilemmas at the core of violence in American society. The frailty of the human condition. Viable ramifications itching to be explored more fully, but the narrative merely brushes up against the issues, surrounding them with stagy performances and melodramatic results.

Gosling is one of the best young actors of his generation.  He blew my mind in The Believer and was deliciously creepy in Murder by Numbers. Unfortunately Leland isn’t weighty enough to support his magnificent talents. Cheadle’s got the goods, as does Malone, but Spacey turns in a tired and arrogant performance that’s distracting at best. 

Inspired by his own eye-opening journey as a juvenile prison educator, writer/director Matthew Ryan Hope obviously lacks experience, but gets snaps for tackling the underbelly of complex teen crimes.