Given that the five-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings is just a couple of weeks away, it's a sensitive time to be releasing a film about teen murder. Although "The United States of Leland," released Friday (April 2), doesn't address Columbine directly, its timing and subject matter will inevitably evoke memories of that tragic event.
However, like the similarly themed "Elephant," "Leland" is complex, morally ambiguous and eschews easy answers and straightforward scapegoats.
"In the last couple of years, the [reasons offered for school shootings] had been very precise, 'Oh, they were abused as children,' 'Oh, they wear trench coats and listen to Marilyn Manson,' " said 19-year-old Jena Malone ("Donnie Darko"), who plays the role of Leland's girlfriend in the film. But Malone pointed out that such characterizations avoid addressing the actual causes by demonizing the perpetrators. "We can just sort of shove it off and never think about it again because it [was] just evil," she said.
In the film, a fragile, unassuming teen, Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling, "The Believer"), commits a brutal crime that shocks a community, destroys a family and raises difficult questions.
Don Cheadle ("Traffic," "Ocean's Eleven") stars as a teacher in the juvenile correction center that initially tries to exploit Leland for personal gain, but he soon tries to understand the boy and help him.
The cast also features Chris Klein ("American Pie"), Michelle Williams ("Dawson's Creek") and Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty"); Spacey also helped produce the film.
Malone said the project appealed to her because of its honest and complicated portrayal of the teen experience. "It's that period where you realize that youth is equally as messed up as this adult world that you're [about] to enter," she said. "It's easy to become disillusioned by your surroundings, and it's very easy to make choices that you don't realize are going to affect the rest of your life."
In addition to her other problems, Malone's character is a drug addict, and it was important to the actress that the role didn't glamorize drug use. "[Romanticizing drugs] is a really damaging thing," she said. "It's important to show both sides of the coin, so I was [happy] to break down that cliché and try to show the reality of the situation."
The controversy in "Leland" lies not only in its subject matter, but also in the way that it humanizes the "monster" in Gosling's character; it asks the audience to sympathize and, ultimately, care deeply for him.
"The only way for [audiences] to process the film is to relate it to their own experience," Malone said. "So by personalizing, it makes it easier to understand, and you're putting yourself in the shoes of someone you normally wouldn't. I think that, in itself, is a powerful tool in understanding yourself and understanding others."
"Regardless of whether people love or hate this film," Malone continued, "the only hope I have is that people will walk out with questions in their mind that don't have the easy answers."