Melissa Painter's "Steal Me" is that rarity, a low-budget independent picture made in a rural setting that captures an authentic feel and rhythm of the locale without self-consciousness, awkwardness or sentimentality -- and with considerable subtlety and an appropriately low-key style. Painter has managed to respect the slow pace of life in bucolic Livingston, Mont., yet never let her movie drag, and she has uncovered myriad complexities in a deceptively simple story.
Outstanding newcomer Danny Alexander, who also serves as the film's narrator, admits at age 15 that he's been a habitual thief most of his life. He's come to Livingston in search of his elusive mother, apparently a drifter who according to Danny "scared away" his father when he was an infant. When a local youth, Tucker (Hunter Parrish), catches Danny's Jake stealing his pickup's radio he winds up befriending the thief, even offering him shelter.
The paint may be peeling from Tucker's spacious, sunny family home, and his farmer father John (John Terry) may have had to take a day job in a train yard in order to make ends meet. But John and his wife, Sarah (Cara Seymour), are a warm and loving couple. They are clearly ideal parents to Tucker and to his pretty younger sister Cindy (Chelsea Carlson). The family has everything Jake craves and has never had. John is a strong, paternal, trusting man who unhesitatingly offers to put up Jake in his barn and offer him work, but Sarah is wary.
Jake wastes no time ingratiating himself with one and all through thoughtful acts, and the question becomes whether the family's love will be healing for him or he is beyond repair. Painter builds involvement with Jake and Tucker's equally appealing family, and most important, arrives at a concluding sequence that is free of melodrama, stark tragedy and contrivance. Yet Painter strikes a note of understated irony: Ultimately, Jake has had a more positive effect upon the family than the family upon him.
Painter inspires the most engagingly natural portrayals from her actors. Seymour is especially beguiling as the wisest, most relaxed of women, and along with the principals there are splendid moments from Toby Poser as a seductive neighbor woman and Paz de la Huerta as the reflective, sultry beauty Tucker pines for. Cinematographer Paul Ryan's beautiful images are complemented by Jim Thomas' spare, plaintive score. "Steal Me" is a beautifully realized small film of understated power.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Mature themes, some sensuality.
A Cineville presentation. Writer-director Melissa Painter. Producers Carl Colpaert, Lee Caplin. Cinematographer Paul Ryan. Editor Melissa Bretherton. Consulting editor Brent White. Music Jim Thomas. Costumes Courtney Hess. Production designer Andrea Soeiro. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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