Reviews of Blue Car (2002): Disturbing views of abuse

Blue Car, directed by Karen Moncrieff, focuses on Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a teenage girl who struggles at home but finds an outlet in poetry. Her English teacher encourages her talent, offers a shoulder to cry on, and crosses a line of intimacy with a student. Meg is pretty, white, and blonde, and the subject resembles a Lifetime movie. Her poetry falls short, except perhaps her final piece. However, the film’s quiet portrayal of a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders rings true.

Thankfully, some things have changed since 2002, when the film Blue Car was released. Slowly, the public has become more knowledgable about abuse. The many reviews of the movie at its time of release, mostly written by men, display the ignorance at the time. Many of the critics expressed an inordinate amount of sympathy for the abuser, displaying a fundamental lack of understanding about the mechanisms of manipulation.  Some men decried the film for depicting abuse at all, saying it painted men and particularly male teachers in a bad light.

Of course, a number of the myths espoused in the reviews still exist. For example, even though the Entertainment Weekly review describes Mr. Auster the English teacher’s attentions to be dangerous, a later list of David Strathairn’s best roles describes Auster as both a creep and a hero. Moreover, it calls their relationship “mutually exploitative.” I’m going to reveal much of Blue Car‘s plot by pointing out the offense in calling a situation in which a fifty-year-old teacher has sex with his teenage student mutual in any way. (Her age is unspecified. Most sources say she is eighteen, but the actress was fifteen when she was cast.) Auster knows Meg has little money, an overworked mother, a recently deceased little sister, and a father who separated from her family during a divorce. Still, the writer at EW apparently holds them equally responsible.

Stephen Holden’s review in The New York Times focuses more on Mr. Auster’s psychology than Meg’s, seemingly identifying and sympathizing with him just a little bit more: “Faced with a young woman as dependent and adoring as Meg, who radiates a confusing mixture of innocence and sexual heat, he can’t resist the temptation to play God.” It’s a bizarre description of Meg. Even if she were openly flirtatious and precociously sexual, this would not justify Auster’s behavior. It would simply be a young woman exploring her sexuality. Meg herself is shy and quiet. She wears baggy clothes and only tries to dress up once Auster starts giving her attention. He approaches her, picks her up when she walks home, and requests that she share lunches with him. Holden’s choice of words suggests that all beautiful girls with crushes radiate a “sexual heat” that confuses poor old men.

The most offensive review I surveyed was written by a woman. I foolishly assumed a more acute take on the scenario would be found in The Austin Chronicle, but its writer Marjorie Baumgarten continues the trend of feeling sympathy for Auster, who, like Meg, supposedly “suffers from loss and self-doubt and is in need of support and encouragement.” Baumgarten also severely downplays the scene in which Auster has a sexual liaison with Meg. The director calls the moment “awkward and awful.”

It is actually a rape scene disguised as uncomfortable sex. Not only has Auster exploited an extremely vulnerable student, he takes her to a motel and attempts to have sex with her without any romance or preparation. He asks if she’s okay a few times, but she is clearly nervous and certainly does not enthusiastically consent. Eventually, she can only cringe in discomfort, and he finally stops. His expression might reveal guilt or shame, but he makes no attempt to comfort or apologize to her, even when she silently turns away from him on the bed.

Baumgarten outrageously characterizes the scene as a mild mistake that encourages character development: “Danger is recognized and averted, a few moments too late, perhaps, but still within enough time to rectify the course. … Although emotionally precarious, the moment is not a fatal collision, just a large bump in the road that leads toward Meg’s maturation.” Just because someone stops sexually assaulting someone does not undo the sexual assault. The betrayal Meg faces is heartbreaking. It is a tribute to the character, not the situation, that she handles her life as well as she does.

It was then refreshing to read The Washington Post review in which Stephen Hunter gives Strathairn credit for “how badly [he]’d like to beat Mr. Auster to a pulp.” He gives Meg credit as the story’s hero and observes Auster’s entitlement and weakness: his “sickest and most fundamental lie is to himself: that he cares, that he only wants to help.” Roger Ebert also points out how, “by maintaining a position of power and then overpraising her work, [Auster] gets inside her defenses.” He likely appears to be more well-intended than he is because the whole situation “must be within the twisted terms of his own compromised morality.” As Ebert says, “He is rotten in an everyday way, not in a horror movie way–and that makes him much more frightening.” He concludes the review by lamenting the high MPAA rating for the film, which he considers a cautionary tale.

Sexual predators must take responsibility for their actions. As much as our society outwardly condemns sexual abuse, we tend to extend forgiveness to the perpetrators and downplay the victims’ pain. These articles are perfect demonstrations of victim-blaming,  filled with myths about power dynamics and the intentions of abusers. We need to counteract these stereotypes in order to remove the enormous burdens that are placed on survivors of abuse. Blue Car is a sad and familiar movie about a young girl, struggling with too much, and an older authority figure who hurts her because of his monstrous self-absorption.

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