Poor Leland Fitzgerald. He's sad. He's in pain. And he's stuck in a big middle-class suburban nowhere. The lightness of being is so unbearable that he kills his girlfriend's mentally ill brother, an act committed for reasons that make even less sense after he's explained himself.
Played by Ryan Gosling, Leland shrugs off his deed, incapable of apologizing. He spends the duration of Matthew Ryan Hoge's "The United States of Leland" in borderline catatonia, numb to the pain he's caused his friends and neighbors. To be fair, no one we meet in the movie's endless flashbacks seems well suited to happiness. This includes Leland's mother (Lena Olin) and the dead boy's family, the Pollards -- mom (Ann Magnuson), dad (Martin Donovan), and two daughters (Jena Malone, Michelle Williams) -- plus one girl's boyfriend (Chris Klein).
"United States of Leland" is the sort of movie that's desperate to make a biggish moral statement about an immoral world, and all that jazz. But as written and directed by Hoge, in his debut, the movie is as wimpy and inarticulate as its sullen hero. Hoge has his talented, underworked cast express misery by staring beyond the camera in a dazed stupor. You can almost hear his instructions, "Be more . . . existential."
Leland spends the interval between his crime and his pending punishment in a juvenile detention center, where his sullen demeanor stands out among all the charismatic young black men and Latinos. Most impressed is the unfortunately named Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher and aspiring writer who wants to make a breakthrough with Leland. It's galling that this movie, not to mention Pearl, prizes mealy-mouthed Leland and his generic angst over kids with actual personalities. Where we see another glorified dangerous and detached white teen, the movie sees an emblem, and Pearl sees a book. (Leland's the only student in the class who wants to write. The movie takes its title from his journal.)
Slowly -- glacially, actually -- Pearl and Leland bond. The man updates the boy on his long-distance girlfriend and his affair with one of the detention center's administrative assistants (Kerry Washington). In return, the boy explains why he killed Ryan Pollard. Still, he's stingy with details: "Tears couldn't make someone who's dead alive again," begins a typical monologue.
Gosling is a smart, focused actor who played a brutal young neo-Nazi in "The Believer" and, as a serial killer, was delightfully foul to Sandra Bullock in "Murder by Numbers." As Leland, his usual intensity dissipates into a haze of expressionless moping.
There's a certain area of popular music filled with boys like Leland, guys who enjoy being wrenched and tortured, while maintaining painful sensitivity. It's called emo, a brand of melodic punk rock that connects the Replacements to Dashboard Confessional and licenses thousands of men to be passive, uncertain, and ineffectual. Rock critic Andy Greenwald recently wrote an in-depth book about emo culture called "Nothing Feels Good." And "The United States of Leland" is an emo movie, though not as well-crafted as 2001's "Donnie Darko" or as visionary as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Emo to the hilt, Leland remains indifferent to what he's done. But his case is such a big deal that it wins a spot on the front of USA Today. Leland's acclaimed novelist father even flies in from Paris and is such a contemptuous, drunken diva-priss that he must be played by Kevin Spacey, who receives both a producing credit on the picture and its worst dialogue. In the name of restraint, one could argue, but more from a lack of inspiration, Hoge doesn't bother gathering Spacey, Olin, and Gosling together for one cathartic act-off. The story isn't structured to come to a head. It's built to drift to a leaden, symbolic conclusion, which doesn't mean the movie is gratifying. It simply means it's over.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.