Written and directed by Melissa Painter
Starring Cara Seymour, Danny Alexander, Hunter Parrish, John Terry, Paz de la Huerta, Toby Poser, Chelsea Carlson
Steal Me is a beautiful-looking, somewhat intriguing film with several fine performances from a relatively little-known cast. But while it rings some interesting variations on the Mysterious Stranger Comes to Town and Stirs Up Trouble genre, it was less than emotionally overwhelming overall.
The plot is certainly dramatically charged: Jake (Danny Alexander), a 15-year-old drifter, arrives in rural/idyllic Livingston, Montana in search of his prostitute mother. She has already skipped town, and the homeless Jake is caught stealing the radio from Tucker (Hunter Parrish)’s car. Tucker is the adored teenage son of what seems an impossibly perfect family, and he befriends the would-be thief and eventually brings him home to mother Sarah (Cara Seymour), father John (John Terry) and little sister Cindy (Chelsea Carlson). Jake’s disturbing presence eventually reveals the cracks and currents below the surface of both the family and its circle of friends.
Writer/director Melissa Painter is skilled at showing the emotional subtexts that complicate these seemingly simple people’s lives. For example, even as Jake becomes a quasi-member of the family, he’s still a bit too eager to please, a bit too watchful of other’s reactions — understandable given that his ability to read situations and people has been a valuable survival skill.
Cara Seymour, who looks like a sharper-featured Gena Rowlands, imbues her overprotective, almost inappropriately sexual mother and somewhat dissatisfied wife with a range of emotional shadings. She’s not used to having someone like Jake around, who is sensitive to her frustration at small-town life, so her coldness melting into maternal concern is one of the more interesting emotional arcs of Steal Me.
The movie also looks wonderful: Painter, in association with cinematographer Paul Ryan, lives up to her name, with lovely images of the mountains, fields and warm light of Big Sky country. The images sometimes dovetail with the story beautifully. When Jake encourages Tucker to pursue his childhood crush on Lily Rose (Paz de la Huerta), all three lie back on an ocean of grass, their bodies making a tiny island as they tentatively touch and kiss.
But despite many such moments, Steal Me doesn’t seem to add up to much of anything, and I’m not totally sure why. Perhaps the stealing/substitution theme is a little too carefully worked out. For instance, Jake starts an affair with a sexy neighbor (Toby Poser), whose husband has abandoned her and their infant daughter, so Jake gets to sleep with a substitute mom while Sarah gets to vicariously enjoy, and then disapprove, of the quasi-Oedipal goings-on next door.
Likewise, Jake practically pushes Tucker into Lily Rose’s arms, although she’s made it clear that she’s equally if not more attracted to the mysterious stud (and that she’s more sexually experienced than the blond farm boy). In fact, Jake seems a bit too selfless; considering he’s probably had a fairly brutal, hardscrabble life until now, he’s an awfully nice kid — if you ignore the chronic stealing and the compulsive breaking and entering, which makes him cool in the eyes of Tucker’s small-town friends but also makes it easier for them to ultimately reject him.
At least Painter resists the temptation to paste a too-happy ending on to what is at times a tough story. Steal Me, with its complex characters and interrelationships, is the kind of small, heartfelt film that you wish was better. I left admiring the effort but, unfortunately, not caring enough about the characters to wonder or worry about them afterwards.