A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
A carload of teenage girls on their way to the beach stops at a gas station and one of them likes the look of the attendant, an older guy with bad-boy charm. She invites him along. He quits his job and jumps in the car. He says he's from South Dakota and has never seen the ocean. We don't know whether to believe that, or much of anything else he says, but she believes him, and so will her younger brother.
That's the setup for "Down in the Valley," a movie the actors and director take as far as they can until the story bogs down in questions too big to forgive. The first half is pitch-perfect, as Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), who is 18, falls under the spell of Harlan (Edward Norton), who is thirtysomething but not quite grown up, or all there. He thinks of himself as a cowboy, loves that 10-gallon hat, takes her horseback riding and gets into a dispute over whether the horse was stolen or only borrowed. He has a lot of misunderstandings like that.
Tobe lives in an ordinary house in the San Fernando Valley with her dad, Wade (David Morse), and 13-year-old brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Wade works as a corrections officer but doesn't bring his work home with him: He is a careless parent who makes a big show of supervising his children but seems unaware that Harlan enters his daughter's bedroom at will. When Harlan meets him for the first time, he delivers one of those sincere, forthright speeches about wanting to treat the daughter with respect and earn the trust of the father, etc. Ed Norton is such a nuanced actor that he simultaneously makes this speech sound like the absolute truth and a bald-faced lie.
Tobe is fascinated by Harlan, by his cowboy act, by his posturing, by his (or somebody's) horse and by the sex. But she isn't dumb, and she grows disturbed about some of the things she senses. Her kid brother, on the other hand, is angry with his father and ready to fall for Harlan's line, and that leads to some closing scenes that plain don't work. Wade, having been absent or inattentive at crucial moments, becomes obsessed with hunting down Harlan after the "cowboy" gets into the big trouble that we've been expecting since the first scene. The chase actually leads to the movie set of a Western town, which is not merely symbolism, or even Symbolism, but Symbolism!