After watching films like Sin City and Pulp Fiction, people rarely leave the theater all abuzz with the excitement of having just seen a really great independent film. More than likely, viewers are excited to have seen such a kick ass action flick or such an awesome crime thriller. If folks get excited over an “independent film” it means that there were feelings, and rites of passage, and, more than likely, some slow dissolves.
I would love to be able to classify Melissa Painter’s new film Steal Me as anything but a stereotypical “indie film.” If only it had fewer moments of tepid sexual discovery and more viable plot points I might really be able to sell at is a drama. As it is, however, Steal Me cashes in on every early 90s art house cliché from a fumbling-but-starry-eyed loss of virginity to a melancholy soundtrack droning out lonely guitar as a means by which to aurally denote “emotion” (except for one part where there’s that song by The BoDeans from Party of Five. That was entirely original).
Steal Me begins as Jake (newcomer Danny Alexander), an adolescent drifter and severe kleptomaniac, arrives in a small Montana town in search of his prostitute mother. When mom is nowhere to be found, he seeks refuge with a sympathetic rural family by way of their teenage son, Tucker (Hunter Parish, Sleepover, Down in the Valley). Jake quickly starts crushing on the mother (Cara Seymour, Adaptation, Hotel Rwanda), working with the father (John Terry, Full Metal Jacket, Of Mice and Men) and screwing the recently divorced neighbor (Toby Poser, Bad Liver and a Broken Heart, Guiding Light). Amid all of this, there’s a whole mess of self-discovery, a truckload of identity affirmation, and tons of sex.
Writer and director Melissa Painter (Wildflowers, Admissions) has admitted that Steal Me is a very personal film. With that in mind, what’s so surprising about it is that none of its flaws come from the film being overly oblique or seemingly self-important; the film’s problems comes from the utter unoriginality of its visuals and the tired emotional juncture reached at the ultimately anti-climactic ending.
Don’t be confused – Steal Me isn’t a bad film and Melissa Painter isn’t a bad writer or director. Steal Me is a mediocre film and Melissa Painter is a mediocre writer and director. While all of her shots work and many are beautiful, she relies on the always-successful, never-respectable method of creating beauty on film by simply filming things that viewers will perceive as beautiful. The film was shot on location in rural Montana and, as such, a feeling of pastoral beauty pervades the entire movie as the teenage characters swim in a crystalline river, run through wind-swept fields, and make out amid drifting petals in green pastures at dusk. None of this, however, has anything to do with Painter’s actual direction. When she does put her directing chops to work, she uses them to create strange POV shots that are littered with effects, wonderful to look at, but, ultimately, confusing in the context of the film.
Honestly, the worst thing about the story is that the climax is so predictable and, to be honest, lacking any real energy. She never seems to know exactly whose story she’s telling and, by the end, though she’s seems to have told the interwoven tale of a family and a runaway, there’s little indication of what was really meant by either.
All of the actor’s do a terrific job or portraying their respective characters and the film never really looks bad. It just doesn’t have any of the sparks or vigor that serve to make this brand of emotionally involved character dramas affecting. I wish I could speak higher of Steal Me because I really believe that Painter’s intentions were good. But, as they say, good intentions pave the road to hell. And the road to Jersey Girl, for that matter.