Terrorism, tow trucks, and the Nativity

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 15, 2009
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'Adoration," the latest cool blue puzzle-box from Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan, has a lot on its plate. Terrorism, adolescence, anti-Arab racism, mixed marriages, online communities, teacher-student relations, the sins of fathers, the anger of children, the Nativity, and tow-truck ethics are some of the many issues the filmmaker chews over here. That the movie doesn't quite topple over like a wedding cake is tribute only to Egoyan's rigor and skill. He's a moralist who wants to tackle 50 problems at once, but he's also a neat freak.

As with the director's other films - 1997's "The Sweet Hereafter" remains the best known - the audience spends the first half-hour figuring out exactly what's going on. (If you want to play the game, beware of spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) A lanky, brooding Toronto high schooler, Simon (Devon Bostick), presents a monologue to his class about his Lebanese father (Noam Jenkins) using his Canadian mother (Rachel Blanchard) as an unwitting airplane bomber; she's stopped at Customs before the device can explode. The boy's story gets out to the public and controversy erupts.

Except that none of it may have happened. As Simon alternately defends and vilifies his father in noisy video chat-room debates with his classmates and impassioned adults, it becomes clear that he has grafted a news story onto his personal life, and that his parents actually died in a car crash years earlier. Why, then, did his oddly intense drama teacher, Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian), urge him to write and perform the monologue? What seething anger is Simon's uncle, Tom (Scott Speedman), a bearded tow-truck operator who has raised the boy, carrying toward his own late father (Kenneth Welsh)? Who's the masked Arab woman who shows up at Simon's house on Christmas Eve?

Watching "Adoration" is like juggling three tennis balls, a porcupine, and a graduate thesis, but eventually it finds a unifying theme, that of tolerance melting away racial and intergenerational hatreds. Egoyan's script relies too much on coincidence, but one such happenstance results in the film's best scene, an unexpected diner date in which Tom and Sabine share their respective burdens and find wary common ground. Even that, though, is broken up by a cabdriver (Dominic Cuzzocrea) loudly discussing the merits of a free lunch.

In Egoyan-land, no one gets a free lunch. We're too attached to each other by unspoken debts and grievances, he feels, and too blinded by perspective. The fault of "Adoration" is that it tries to use cinema to see all perspectives at once and with a seriousness that tips into the lugubrious. Mychael Danna's score, with its keening violin threnodies, both anchors and immobilizes the narrative, and God forbid anyone should crack a smile.

The film's boldest sign of life is Khanjian's performance as the teacher, a woman clearly unstable yet possessed with eerie grace (not to mention a heroic uni-brow). The role embodies the director's prickly notion of forgiveness as a necessary, ruinous thing; that the actress is Egoyan's wife and long-time leading lady explains the ease with which she moves through his landscapes. He's an emotional Cubist and she's his Nude in a Black Armchair.

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ADORATION Written and directed by: Atom Egoyan

Starring: Devon Bostick, Arsinee Khanjian, Scott Speedman

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: R (language)