Writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge was obviously moved by the plight of some of the incarcerated teenage boys he taught for two years while working in the Los Angeles juvenile hall system. He discovered they weren't monsters; in fact, even the murderers among them often appeared to be totally normal young men who had no idea why they had acted as they did.

The United States of Leland is Hoge's fictionalized attempt to explain the inexplicable acts of violence that American young men indulge in all too frequently. He focuses on Leland (Ryan Gosling)--a smart, outwardly gentle 17-year-old from an upper-middle-class background--who stabs to death a neighbor, a retarded boy, whom Leland was fond of and had often protected. Don Cheadle takes the role of Pearl Madison, a juvenile hall teacher (and aspiring novelist) who becomes fascinated by Leland's story and encourages him to write it in his own words--in a notebook the young man labels 'The United States of Leland.'

Leland has been raised by his divorced mom, Marybeth (Lena Olin), while his father, Albert (Kevin Spacey), a famous novelist, lives the high life in Paris. Leland's girlfriend is the drug-addicted Becky (Jena Malone), whose sister Julie (Michelle Williams) has her own problems, mostly having to do with her live-in boyfriend, Allen (Chris Klein). Oh, by the way, the retarded boy Leland kills is the girls' younger brother.

What action there is in this movie takes forever to get going--or maybe it just seems like forever because all of these characters are so unlikeable and unfathomable, and the dialogue between them is so trite and dumb. The plot is anchored by Pearl, the teacher (the writer-director's surrogate) who hopes to publish a best-seller based on Leland's story. But Pearl starts feeling a bit guilty about leading the kid on, and then Leland begins to question his teacher's morality, specifically his promiscuous sexual behavior. Not to worry, the novelist/scriptwriter/director character emerges as the good guy, while tragedy befalls everyone else.

Although Hoge's script hints at any number of dark, psychological motives for murder--both families, the murderer's and the victim's, are totally dysfunctional--none of them is plausible. Ostensibly, that's the point: In this privileged society, it's impossible to explain random acts of violence.

In his very brief appearance Kevin Spacey is, as usual, an exciting actor--and he gives The United States of Leland at least a few lively moments. As the producer of the film, however, Spacey has failed miserably. Yes, he helped assemble a very talented cast, but Hoge's script--and his direction--serves none of them well.

-Shirley Sealy