The film is narrated by Phillip (Eric Lloyd), a precocious 10-year-old with an encyclopedic knowledge of physics and chemistry and a dangerously fertile imagination that increasingly cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. "I only cared about two things," he remarks in voice-over, "being with my mom and being in motion." Both are achieved from the backseat of an old Chevy, where Phillip sits, comfortably surrounded by textbooks, while his mother tools down the highway, no specific destination in mind, a fugitive from some dark episode in her alcohol-fueled life.
Loving but narcissistic, maternal but careless, Margaret (Deborah Kara Unger) is a lush and a tramp who subsidizes their flight with cash and credit cards stolen from the dumb, vain men she seduces along their route. In her fevered desire to both escape and embrace life, she hides little from her son, her devoted, besotted accomplice. Her behavior is more than inappropriate; it borders on child abuse. Intellectually brilliant but developmentally still a child, Phillip can't see that. But, displaying an insight far beyond the reach of his 10 years, he declares, "Most people didn't understand my mom; they judged her." He doesn't judge her; he worships her. To him, she is light and motion, the two properties that not only fuel his vision of life but are life itself.
Phillip is fine as long as he and Margaret keep moving, but when she gets tired of the peripatetic life and decides to hole up with a sweet, caring carpenter (Terry Kinney), Phillip becomes resentful and jealous. "Mom, let's get back in motion," he pleads. But Margaret needs a rest. Phillip is forced to take matters into his own hands.
Luminous Motion drifts between fantasy and reality, but which is which is part of the film's mystique and beauty. Phillip's father (Jamey Sheridan) seems always on the edge of reappearing in their lives, but is he real or another figment of Phillip's imagination? The story takes a creepy twist -- creepy even for a film this bizarre -- when Phillip hooks up with a troubled teenager who believes in the occult and a skinny classmate who disapproves of the boys' plans but hangs around for the ride anyway.
Bette Gordon -- a film professor at Columbia University whose only other feature, Variety, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight in 1985 (she has also directed a handful of shorts) -- creates a visually and aurally hallucinatory world that is psychologically complex and emotionally engrossing. Based on the novel The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield, the film proves as audacious as it is intriguing, a dreamlike observation of loss and separation.
The performances are top-notch. Unger (Crash, The Game), an intrepid actress whose exotic, feline looks are well suited to the brazen, amoral characters she tends to portray, has never been this good. Playing an irresponsible, sexually charged individual who is also a nurturing mother figure, she must create a character for whom viewers can feel both disapproval and compassion. It is a difficult line to straddle, and she does so flawlessly. Sheridan makes Dad far more than a menacing presence, and Kinney gives substance to someone who could easily have been shrugged off as a wimpy, transitory figure.
But it is young Eric Lloyd who makes the biggest impression in the film. Just as The Sixth Sense would never have worked without Haley Joel Osment, it is difficult to imagine Luminous Motion without Lloyd. Already a veteran at the age of 10, Lloyd (The Santa Clause, Deconstructing Harry) has an almost preternatural ability to suggest intellectual sophistication and emotional immaturity at the same time. He communicates fear, anger, confusion, pain, hopelessness and innocence all at once, allowing us to be both horrified by and sympathetic to the machinations of his mind. The fact that he is a boy, of course, adds an oedipal dimension to the story and heightens our sense of unease, but fortunately director Gordon does not exploit that avenue.
In the end, Phillip's thoughts and actions constitute an extreme response to perceived loss and separation. As disturbing as that is -- and as fearful as we are for his future -- the overriding emotion rising from this film is sadness. I entered the theater never having heard of director Gordon, but seeing this film makes me want to rush out and rent everything she has ever made.