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Satirical 'Placid Lake' offers only splashes of laughter

"The Rage in Placid Lake" is not about some mysterious fury roiling the waters of upstate New York but rather about a young man whose name is actually Placid Lake -- and that fact alone brings the movie's whimsy quotient to near-radioactive levels. Placid lives in Australia, but he's one of the many, many cinematic sons of Holden Caulfield -- a cynical, jokey, justifiably arrogant adolescent who desperately wants to join the ranks of the "normal people" he works so hard to despise. Think of Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate" or Max Fischer in "Rushmore" -- God knows the filmmakers did.

To the credit of writer-director Tony McNamara, "Placid Lake" has brightly arch dialogue, winning actors, and one good, unexpected plot twist midway through. Placid, played by the weedy cult rocker Ben Lee, is on the verge of graduating when the film begins, and we're given to understand that his high school years have been a Dante's Inferno of beatings and humiliations. Actually, he seems to be one of the more interesting and charismatic kids there, but the script insists on his isolation and sets up the other students as thuggish fish in a barrel.

All except for Gemma (Rose Byrne), his lone childhood friend and a virginal scientific genius in granny dresses and spectacles. She's just as misunderstood as Placid, but where he charges self-destructively at the stupidity of the world, she stays at home and disappears into her books.

The other key characters in "Placid Lake" are the hero's parents, Doug and Sylvia Lake (Garry McDonald and Miranda Richardson), the sort of crunchy hippie horrors that would make any child opt for a career in insurance. Mom is a documentary filmmaker specializing in lost tribes, while dad is a disc jockey at CARE-FM ("For the next hour, we're going to talk pottery classes, political prisoners, and flavored lattes"). As you may sense, the satire here is as broad as a renovated barn with solar panels, but at least the scenes with the Lakes are funny in a gruesome generation-gap way.

Placid has a plan, which seems to be: Alienate everyone and make a run for it. This lands him in the hospital. New plan needed. Instead of fighting the Man, he decides to subvert from within, getting a corporate job and quickly clambering up the rungs. Placid acquires a mentor (Christopher Stollery), a nemesis (Francis McMahon), and a coldhearted love interest (Saskia Smith), and he quickly understands that it's the calculated psych-out rather than the work that matters in a place of business. The question remains whether it's possible to play at the game without playing in it, and whether Gemma will stick around until he finds out.

The surreal cubicle politics are the high point of "The Rage in Placid Lake" -- that and the shirt-rending grief Placid's parents go into whenever they see him in his suit. For every line of dialogue that's truly, glitteringly acid, though, there are five that are merely clever, and Lee, likable as he is, never really taps into the misery of the teen misfit (how could he, since he was a rock star in Australia at the age of 15?). Byrne, currently Brad Pitt's captive love slave in "Troy," also seems untouched by real adolescent angst; she's that old movie standby, the gorgeous nerd.

What's missing from McNamara's film is right there in the title: the anger that cauterizes teen-movie glibness and burns down to the heart of the matter. Where's the rage in "Placid Lake"?

Ty Burr can be reached at

The Rage in Placid Lake
Written and directed by: Tony McNamara
Starring: Ben Lee, Rose Byrne, Miranda Richardson
At: Coolidge Corner
Running time: 89 minutes
Unrated (sexual material, language, mild violence)

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