It could have been the sappiest of soap operas. Eighteen-year-old Meg (Agnes Bruckner) is shattered by her father’s desertion, her mother’s neglect and her sister’s self-mutiliation. Meg leans on Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), the married English teacher and father figure who encourages her to enter a poetry contest. At the finals in Florida, mentor and student blunder into a brutal sexual intimacy.
The weepie pitfalls are avoided thanks to Karen Moncrieff, a first-time writer and director with a tough core of intelligence and wit. Strathairn works miracles by finding the humanity in a deeply flawed man. And Bruckner is an amazement, piercing the heart without begging for sympathy. This small gem of a movie is the perfect setting for her breakthrough performance.