Brief Encounters

Blue Car, Manic, and Shanghai Ghetto

Blue Car

Opens Fri., May 16 at Metro

Twelve years after her father left, 18-year-old Meg (Agnes Bruckner) still has the image of his escape vehicle burned into her brain like a brand. Her mom (Margaret Colin, one of the finest actresses in film) has no time for Meg's kvetchesshe's got woes of her own, like finding a job so her kids won't starve. Night after night, Meg is stuck watching kid sister Lily, who simply won't eat. At first, you think Lily's just on a typical toddler power trip, but soon it dawns on you that her problems run deeperlike, to the perilous molten core of the Earth. That's key to writer-director Karen Moncrieff's impressive debut: Ordinary life is presented so matter-of-factly that you think you're tuned to the Lifetime networkuntil the trap snaps shut on her characters, and you realize she's as serious as a heart attack.

Meg's own heart trouble comes in the form of her soulful high-school teacher, Mr. Auster (the invaluably inscrutable David Strathairn). He thrillingly singles her out with the dark spotlight of his gaze and praise. "I think you can go DEEPER!" he keeps urging her, dangling the prize of the school's poetry contestand maybe even the prize trip to Florida together. Meanwhile, as Auster is coaxing Meg deeper into her emotions, her best friend's sexily rebellious brother is luring her farther outside the law, scamming drugstores for OxyContin.

All this is played utterly convincingly (except for a contrived kid-sister subplot and a too-pat finale), pulling us irresistibly into a Meg's-eye view of a hard world. Even the (married) Mr. Auster's sexual overtures, repugnant as they are, seem to come from a recognizably human source, not the standard Monster Molester cliché studios usually use. Car is that startling anomaly: a good movie that emerged from the frozen swamp of the Sundance Film Festival. (R) TIM APPELO

Manic

Opens Fri., May 16 at Varsity

Or, The Breakfast Club Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Everyone's perfectly well-intentioned in this shot-on-video peek inside the nuthouse, where Don Cheadle (the counselor), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the messed-up kid), and Zooey Deschanel (the girl who helps him calm down) are all gravely serious about their craft. There aren't any patently false epiphanies of recognition or bogus moments of recovery here; everyone dutifully takes their medsor doesn't, meaning a "level drop" (no TV, no basketball). There are fights and occasional flashbacks to the bloody assault that got Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun) institutionalized, and Manic mainly feels like a respectful, unsensationalized yet fundamentally small-screen examination of life in a mental institution. There is no Jack Nicholson (Gordon-Levitt's low-wattage performance avoids any reflection of that incandescence). There is no Louise Fletcher. So the problem, then, is that there's no real drama to disrupt the healing- talk-therapy-circle stereotypes. Where's Judd Nelson when you need him? (R) BRIAN MILLER

Shanghai Ghetto

Runs Fri., May 16-Thurs., May 22 at Varsity

Shanghai was the only destination in the world open to Jews without passports during their brief window of escape from Nazism in the late 1930s. Several thousand German Jews who had money and foresight embarked on that long steamship voyage, and this fascinating, first-rate documentary tells their story. From a life of urbane sophistication in Vienna and Berlin, these refugees showed up near-penniless in a disease-ridden, flood-prone, and very foreign city. The filmmakers interview a half-dozen people who were children at the time, all of whom are now touchingly articulate and insightful about their experience in this fleeting ghetto, which disbanded as soon as the Americans won the war. NOTE: Betty Grebenschikoff, who lived in the Shanghai Ghetto as a child, will appear at the 7 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday. (NR) MARK D. FEFER

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