"L.I.E." opens with an arresting image: a teenager is walking precariously along the railings of a footpass, with the traffic of the Long Island Expressway thundering past underneath. His voice-over intones that, "there are the lanes going east, there are lanes going west, and there are lanes going straight to hell".
It transpires that the kid Howie (Dano) recently lost his mother in a car accident on this notorious road and his father is too preoccupied with both a legal case against his building contracting company and with entertaining his new girlfriend to offer his son any emotional support.
Robbing a neighbourhood house with his hustler friend Gary (Kay), Howie leaves behind some evidence - a ripped piece of denim which is found by the homeowner, ex-Marine Big John (Cox). This Vietnam veteran seems very well connected with the local cops and the staff at school, and he also enjoys the company of young boys...
In lesser hands this could have been yet another coming-of-age yarn about a disaffected adolescent in the soulless American suburbia. But debut writer-director Michael Cuesta instead concentrates on tracing a subtle portrait of the ambiguous relationship that develops between the 15-year-old and the middle-aged pederast.
Interestingly "L.I.E." forgoes the confrontational explicitness of the Larry Clarks of the indie kingdom. Romeo Tirone's accomplished cinematography establishes the contrast between the cold sterility of Howie's Dad's home and the darkened interiors of Big John's mysterious residence.
Cuesta elicits oustanding performances from Dano and Cox. The latter draws out the contradictions of his character: the macho heartiness that's coupled with the sense of personal shame, the predatory instincts that co-exist with a paternal protectiveness, and the concepts of seducer and seduced become blurred.
"L.I.E." may be marred by some narrative contrivances - it just doesn't need a melodramatic denouement - yet most importantly it finds the humanity in a person others would simply dismiss as evil. And in these times that's a valuable commodity.