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Gun-crazy America in the cross hairs

Movies | MOVIE REVIEW

A group of teenagers plays out a love affair with weapons in the thoughtful and intricate 'Dear Wendy.'

September 23, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The first surprise in the unpredictable and original "Dear Wendy" is that its young hero, Dick (Jamie Bell), who at the outset of the film starts writing a letter that will serve as voice-over narration, is not addressing a girlfriend but his cherished revolver.

Dick lives in a desolate coal mining town, shot in desaturated hues and likely set in West Virginia, and he feels like a loser until Stevie (Mark Webber), a heretofore near-silent co-worker at a grocery store, informs him that a recently purchased cap pistol is in fact the real thing, a high-quality revolver. The discovery bonds the two teenage loners, and Stevie's vast knowledge of guns infects Dick.

In a beginning more intricate and clever than outlined here, two of Denmark's Dogme 95 co-founders -- Lars von Trier, who wrote the script, and Thomas Vinterberg, who directed -- launch an allegory on guns and violence in America that is all the more resounding for its acutely observed foreigners' perspective.

The entire film was shot in Denmark and Germany, but one would never know it, so astute is the production design, with only one or two props in the entire film not likely to find their way in into a U.S. coal town.

Dick has resisted following his widowed father -- who early on drops dead in the midst of an off-screen temper tantrum -- into the mines, but the youth has yet to find himself.

But now the escalating obsession with guns and their lore that blossoms within Dick and Stevie leaves them feeling increasingly empowered.

They feel so good about themselves that they decide to spread the word to three other young people who are also regarded as losers by their peers: Susan (Alison Pill), shy daughter of the proprietor of the local dry goods store; and brothers Huey (Chris Owen) and Freddie (Michael Angarano) -- Huey has at long last just received a pair of prosthetic legs that free him from his wheelchair.

The group is soon calling itself the Dandies, erecting a "temple" in an abandoned mine building and setting up a shooting range in the mine below. Their mantra is that "guns are bad," but these dedicated pacifists love them all the same.

They steep themselves in gun history, collect old weapons, don costumes redolent of the Old West and the Edwardian era and create a fantasy world with great precision and detail that is at odds with the drabness of their environment. The effect is intoxicating to one and all, and Susan even attributes the longed-for development of her bosom to her being a Dandy.

The Dandies thrive in an underground state of innocence and secrecy while their daily lives thrive with new-found confidence -- until the sheriff (Bill Pullman), a twangy lunkhead, insists that Dick, as a model young citizen, serve as an informal probation officer to Sebastian (Danso Gordon), the grandson of Dick's former longtime African American housekeeper Clarabelle (Novella Nelson).

Although Sebastian has, in the words of the sheriff, "blown away somebody," he is apparently still a minor, and the sheriff is feeling lenient toward this ex-con as long as he comes under Dick's positive influence.

Self-confident and cool, Sebastian brings a breath of reality to the Dandies' hermetic existence.

It's clear from frame one that "Dear Wendy" is almost certainly not going to end well, but the complex course it takes, also from the start, cannot be guessed, and by the time this astute and entirely distinctive film is over, the folly of America's love affair with guns, past and present, is laid bare with the same inescapable force with which Gregg Araki exposed the horror of child molestation in "Mysterious Skin," a similarly poetic and deceptively affectless film.

*

'Dear Wendy'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong violence, inappropriate for children

A Wellspring release. Director Thomas Vinterberg. Producer Sisse Graum Jorgensen. Screenplay Lars von Trier. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen. Music Benjamin Wallfisch. Costumes Annie Perier. Production designer Karl Juliusson. Art director Jette Lehmann. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart and the University 6, Campus Drive and Stanford across from UCI, (800) FANDANGO 1143#.

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