Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Two teens and a cop drive through a dark triangle of obsession

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by John Polson
Produced by John Penotti, Howard Meltzer and Charles Randolph
Written by Emil Stern, based on the novel by Robert Cormier
Released by Lionsgate
USA. 101 min. Rated R
With: Jon Foster, Sophie Traub, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern and Alexis Dziena

Just as director John Polson coolly turned Swimfan (2002) into a teenage Fatal Attraction, Tenderness is like a Hitchcock film with a teenage blonde and killer.

Opening with a tender kiss, an image that repeats with increasing dread, Tenderness follows three people in upstate New York who are haunted by violence and creepy obsessions. Setting the tone, the voice of Detective Cristofuoro is heard more than he's seen (an otherwise laid-back Russell Crowe ominously narrates in his distinctive rumbling bass) about how he's convinced that young Eric Poole (Jon Foster) is a serial killer of Latinas. Eric is about to be released from a juvenile detention facility on a legal technicality for different murders – he killed his parents when he was a minor. His sensational crime has made him a local notorious celebrity, and attracted the fixation of pretty 16-year-old Lori Cranston (Sophie Traub), after she ran away from home to fulfill a burning desire to kiss a heavy metal rocker.

All three are tortured by their pasts and current temptations, and are living as much in their minds as in reality. The cop is exhausted from caring for his comatose, terminally ill wife and imagines conversations with her about the predictive links between Eric's crimes. With an inexplicable Inspector Javert-like determination, he has been Eric's only visitor in prison. Each visit, and, later, each sighting of the cop trailing him, sets off Eric's dream-like flashbacks that get more revelatory about his crimes and his connection to Lori. The coltish Lori escapes into a fantasy affair with Eric after she manipulates the attentions of her boss, her drunken mother's boyfriend, and just about every passing guy as she acts out with increasingly reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Based on a much less ambiguous young adult novel by Robert Cormier, the teens drive the film and the portrayals of the two damaged youth on a collision course are both tense and sympathetic, though their behavior veers too sharply to the disturbingly pathological. On a road trip where Eric may either want to enjoy his freedom, even more than his trusting Aunt Teresa (Laura Dern in a very small part) believes, to meet up with cute ex-inmate Maria (Alexis Dziena) or to give in to primal urges, Foster looks convincingly trapped in a body struggling with inner demons. In immaturely seeking tenderness in all the wrong places, newcomer Traub is almost as good as Abbie Cornish was as a similar child-woman on the run in Cate Shortland's Somersault (2004). She should have been the most frustrated that Lionsgate let this mostly effective noir sit on the shelf for a year before a very brief and unheralded theatrical release late in 2009. The unsettling atmosphere is emphasized by the film's look and sound. Cinematographer Tom Stern uses more dappled lighting than he did for the more darkly shaded moods of murder and guilt in Mystic River. Jonathan Goldsmith's score generates propulsive fear even when the film shifts too soon from toying with the audience about whether the cop's suspicions are justified through selective point-of-view editing to the climactic, ironic final twist.

January 3, 2010

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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