Swedish Auto

Derek Siegs Sweedish Auto takes the images of small-town stagnationthe unpaved roads, the dingy diners, the blue-collar workers who live from paycheck to paycheckand brings them to life, capturing details so personal that we forget all the clichs typically associated with such films. Sieg pays close attention to the simple, meandering ways his characters talk and live their lives, but also to the ways they can surprise with unexpected wisdom and grace.

Carter (Lukas Haas) is a young auto-mechanic who spends more time with his head in the clouds than under cars. His wide eyes give his blunt features an almost startling innocence, so that his boss amiably excuses his inefficiency. His appearance also makes his favorite hobby, stalking an attractive violinist, seem not-so-creepy, even sweet.

These qualities endure him to another attractive blonde, albeit one with a less glamorous profession. Darla (January Jones), the waitress at the diner where Carter takes his lunch break every day, has been doing some stalking herself and has her eye set on Carter. She is equally elusive and tight-lipped, making their interactions a bit abrupt. Their need for one another finally becomes too urgent to be pushed aside, and tentatively they move from passivity to connectivity.

Like Cameron Crowes Say Anything, Sweedish Auto understands that a new relationship does not swoop in a graceful arc from rejection to dramatic revelation to a night of passionate sex, but moves erratically through gestures and exchanges that suggest both ambivalence and new possibilities.

Rare is the romantic movie where the interactions between the characters are not embellished by breathtaking views of the skyline or pseudo-philosophical insights; Darla and Carter simply want to get to know one another better. We learn what Carters favorite food is (pot roast) and favorite school subject (shop), and that if Darla had a million dollars she would build a tram that would run from her house to the lake.

However, Carter is not content taking strolls through the countryside and exchanging anecdotes with Darla. If anything, having happiness within his reach intensifies Carters quest for the unattainable. Sieg does not glamorize Carters discontent by attributing it to a superior level of intelligence that makes it impossible for him to endure his routine lifestyle, but instead shows how such a mindset can lead to actions that are hurtful, even dangerous, to those around him.

Sweedish Auto does not stray entirely from the unconventional. Darlas raging alcoholic father is not much different from the other raging alcoholics portrayed throughout cinema history, and certain conversations seem to exist for no other reason than to create conflict.

However, the film overcomes these flaws though moments that stick with us, because they defy our expectations while still remaining true to the characters.

The actors work wonders with the minimalist dialogue, creating characters substantial enough to step off the screen and enter into our reality. Haas has an open, relatable quality that allows us to comprehend what would otherwise be puzzling behavior. The baby-faced Jones resembles Claire Danes, but has a style uniquely her own, an appealing mix of confidence and vulnerability, maturity and childishness. It is hard to imagine two more engaging leads, and it is also hard to imagine another director handling such tried-and-true material with more spontaneity.