Although Russell Crowe is the nominal star of Tenderness, an odd, frustrating hybrid of serial-killer suspense film and moody character study of disturbed teenagers, the movie really belongs to the young actress Sophie Traub. Her eyes flashing with a mixture of self-loathing and bravado, her pout twisted into a scowl, Traub’s character, Lori Cranston, is a volatile 15-year-old package of pretty poison. Studying her face, you see a baby Drew Barrymore possessed by demons.
Much of the movie, based on Robert Cormier’s novel, and directed by John Polson, from Emil Stern’s screen adaptation, follows Lori and Eric Komenko (Jon Foster), an 18-year-old killer just released from juvenile detention, on a tense car trip from Buffalo to Albany. Eric, brought up in a strict religious household, spent three years in detention for murdering his mother and stepfather. Now he is living with his Aunt Teresa (Laura Dern, barely seen in the film).
Lori has been obsessed with Eric since she witnessed his fatal encounter with a young woman whom Lori saw him kissing minutes before the young woman drowned. Romantic love and homicide are now virtually inextricable in her imagination, and she remembers the girl’s death as an ultimate swoon of tenderness, hence the title.
When Lori reads about Eric’s release, she hides in the trunk of his car and announces herself after he is on the road. Eric’s ultimate destination, Funland, is an amusement park where he plans to meet a girl (Alexis Dziena) he noticed in juvenile detention who secreted a note to him before her release, and who may be his next victim.
For Eric — handsome, guarded and given to fits of rage that he tries to subdue with prayer — Lori is an unwelcome nuisance; he initially fears she might be a newspaper reporter. The movie teases you in the same way Lori toys with Eric, throwing herself at him, then retreating, losing her nerve, then regaining it. Tenderness keeps you guessing: Does Lori, who has been sexually abused by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, hate herself so much that she wants Eric to kill her? Or is she simply a mixed-up kid in over her head?
Crowe plays Lieutenant Cristofuoro, the semi-retired police officer in Buffalo assigned to Eric’s case, a largely thankless role. On the day of Eric’s release, the lieutenant confronts him with his certainty that they both know he is a psychopath who will kill again. Crowe has little to do in the movie but trail Eric and Lori as they wend their way across upstate New York, visit his comatose wife in the hospital (there is no explanatory back story) and dispense pretentious voice-over asides about pleasure and pain.
The movie’s subplots, especially those involving Crowe’s character, are heavy-handed and superfluous in a film whose best scenes portray the twisty psychological games played by Eric and Lori in various shabby settings. As they linger in cheap motels and restaurants, break into an abandoned trailer in the woods, visit Funland and go rowing on a lake, the movie comes alive in cinematography that contrasts the lushness of summer with a shabby, deteriorating social environment.
Tenderness is a movie undone by its formulaic plot conventions, and its need to give its star more screen time than his characters merits.