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So I thought that after a number of weeks talking about how awesome all these foreign films were, I’d go back to praising some wonderful American films. This, partly because I don’t want to be deported. But really it’s because I consider these three gems to be bright and shining examples of solid American drama. I’d call them films of The New Americana. They just give you that good America, The Beautiful feeling, with good American stories in good American settings told through the performances of good American actors. Strangely enough, in writing about these movies I realized that they all shared one thing, which is the fine performances of a wonderful young American actor, Rory Culkin. That kid’s pretty damn good. Onward, America!

This week on I, Queue Genius: Single mothers and the brothers who spoil their children, then, if only all high school bullies were met with the same fate, and finally, Edward Norton is a creep.

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You Can Count on Me (USA, 2000) Family dysfunction is as American as apple pie, and in this film, starring Laura Linney as a single mother to Rory Culkin whose uncle, Mark Ruffalo, returns home after many years of incommunicado to shake things up, family dysfunction takes front and center. You Can Count on Me is one of those small independent films that doesn’t make a splash of an impact but rather leaves you with the feeling that after all the shit is said and done, everything is going to be just fine. The enigmatic trio of actors, Linney, Culkin and Ruffalo prove to be utterly engaging as a young family struggling to communicate and remain together, even when mistakes are made that threaten the thin line of need on which this family is bonded. What becomes of this simple, intimate film is a great example of moviemaking without the bells and whistles, just a strong cast, engaging story and themes that could not be closer to the heart.

IQG, show me more family dysfunction that I want to see! Running with Scissors (USA, 2006), The Ice Storm (USA, 1997) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (USA, 1962).

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Mean Creek (USA, 2004). Everybody knows that high school kids can be mega assholes, but it takes a movie like Mean Creek to remind us that as much as these assholes think they’re all grown-up and know exactly what they are doing they are really just reckless, volatile children who could use a serious spanking from their parents. Mean Creek brings together a solid cast of young and dedicated actors led by Rory Culkin to tell the classic story of the bully getting what’s coming to him. Where this film departs though is in the insane twist of fate. Mean Creek sounds like a sleepy little drama but it’s really an under-your-skin film that explores themes of revenge and social hierarchy through the classic David and Goliath high school bully set-up. Do you want to cheer for the helpless (but albeit smart) Davids when the shit hits the fan in this film? I’m not sure. Mean Creek will challenge your ideas of justice. Or perhaps, in the end, you too will want to give those kids a serious spanking. This, friends, is a solid little American nugget of a film.

IQG, show me more films in the mega-asshole-high-schooler genre: Elephant (USA, 2003), Thirteen (USA, 2003), and Welcome to the Dollhouse (USA, 1995).

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Down in the Valley (USA, 2005). Edward Norton has a way of portraying cracked characters with wonderful subtlety and nuance. You combine that with the work that Evan Rachel Wood does as a rebellious teen and Rory Culkin (oh my god) as the shy little brother, and you’ve got yourself another American nugget of a film. This character-driven drama is a successful exercise in genre-bending storytelling when you discover that what you’ve been watching is actually modeled after your Good Ole’ American Western. Norton, believing himself a modern-day cowboy and Wood who becomes the center of his obsessions add an electrifying charge of high drama grounded with sharp, realistic performances. And again, our theme, Culkin delivers a genuinely sensitive performance.

IQG, you might as well show me some more Rory Culkin films. Try, The Night Listener (USA, 2006), The Chumscrubber (USA, 2005) and Signs (USA, 2002).

Next week, on I, Queue Genius: A Culkinless survey of three more awesome talkies!

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