B R I E F   S Y N O P S I S
Soft-spoken Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling) commits a crime that shocks his community. Because he is the son of a world-renowned author (Kevin Spacey) and his motive is a genuine mystery, he becomes a touchstone for controversy. In pursuing "the reason why," a prison counselor and aspiring writer (Don Cheadle) sees the chance for a career-making book. Leland's haunting tale probes the impenetrable secrets of the suburban American family and explores the resonance of a single violent act, revealing its effect on the families of the guilty and the innocent.
  The United States of Leland
   
 

The United States of Leland wasn't a film I planned to write. In a lot of ways, I stumbled into it. I had been out of school for a little while, working bad jobs to support a filmmaking habit. Shortly after graduating from USC, I made my first attempt at shooting a feature. Using newly-acquired credit cards, I shot twenty minutes of it before I ran out of money. But I learned a lot. And I'm still paying off the cards. A couple years later, I managed to get a feature in the can. Nine days to shoot it, nine grand to spend on the whole affair. Somehow, with a great deal of help, I was able to (almost) finish this film. No one's seen it but, again, I learned a lot.

I paid the bills during this period by working a series of increasingly bleak temp jobs. I spent a year or so staring at a concrete wall, putting barcodes on things. But, then I lucked out. I stumbled into a job that changed my life. Substitute teaching. I certainly wasn't going in with such expectations. At the time, I was only searching for a less soul-crushing line of work. Los Angeles was (and probably still is) experiencing a serious teacher shortage. As such, the requirements for becoming a substitute were: (1) have a college degree and (2) don't have tuberculosis. I was stunningly qualified, and was promptly offered a job by Los Angeles County. The County basically takes all of the programs that the regular districts cannot accommodate: juvenile hall, kids on probation, kids with drug problems, pregnant teens, kids with severe emotional problems, mentally handicapped kids. In short, people I probably wouldn't meet any other way. I was excited by the challenge.

I taught for two years, in a variety of settings. The majority of my time was spent at a juvenile hall in East Los Angeles. My first day, I was led into a classroom filled with seventeen young people facing murder charges. Seventeen killers. Seventeen monsters, I thought at the time. But, over the days and weeks and months, I found my view of these kids, and of the world, challenged and changing. These kids still had hope, humor, a desire to learn and connect to the world. Some of them had done terrible things, but most were overwhelmed with regret. They couldn't begin to articulate why they had done what they'd done. And it wasn't long before I began to wonder: Should one action, no matter how unjust, define an entire life?

I didn't go into teaching looking for a story. It found me. I couldn't stop thinking about some of the kids I'd met. I was kicking around ideas about morality, how we define it and why. Asking myself questions about right and wrong, questions about the decisions these kids had made, and questions about the decisions I was making as well. So I wrote a script about it. And, then, through a remarkable series of events that proved to me forever that mine is indeed a charmed life, I was given the opportunity to make the film.

I should note that my aim here is not to portray myself as a saint because I taught in juvenile hall for a while. Save the praise for my former colleagues, those who have been teaching there for twenty years and are still passionate about their work. It's a difficult and demanding job. You get close to a kid and then he shows up in your class and announces that he's being shipped off to adult prison to serve a ninety year sentence. Ninety years. What does that mean to a fifteen-year-old? How can he even process it?

And the students who inspired me? The vast majority of them are residing in cramped cells that they will call home for the next twenty, forty or even one hundred years. Did I do anything to impact their lives during my brief stint teaching? I hope so. But I'm not sure. So, I suppose, my hope is that the film itself might do something to balance the scales. I'd like to believe that The United States of Leland offers an audience a chance to go on the same journey that I had teaching. When you first hear about the crime that Leland has committed, it sounds unthinkable, appalling, monstrous. Over the course of the film, though, it becomes apparent that Leland isn't a monster. Anything but. It's impossible to forgive him for what he's done. But should one action define an entire life?

To be sure, it's a more difficult and dangerous world to live in when we accept the notion that the line between good and bad isn't fixed. When we embrace the idea that there can be a lot of good in someone who does something bad and that, conversely, there's a little of that bad inextricably intertwined with "our" good. It's a more honest world, though. And I feel that reconsidering the way our society treats those who cross the line is in all of our best interests. Criminals, victims, observers. All of us.

   

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