Based on the semiautobiographical novel by its director, Ethan Hawke, you can practically hear the sarcastic comments of crits revving up; forget that the actor-turned-auteur is distantly related to Tennessee Williams.
But Hawke has learned a thing or two from his collaborations with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy (the wonderful Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) and his sophomore writer-director effort, The Hottest State, is an achingly heartfelt and surprisingly touching portrait of love-struck idiocy.
When aspiring actor William (Mark Webber) meets aspiring singer Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno in her first starring role since Maria Full of Grace) in a New York City bar, he quickly finds himself caught up in a nervous dance of delirious infatuation and awkward advances. Every moment of William and Sarah's budding romance is dizzy with possibility but sober with uncertainty: when to have sex, when to call each other girlfriend or boyfriend, when to open up? Then William lands a part in a film, convinces Sarah to join him in for a week in Mexico and the young couple finally consummate their relationship. Intimacy turns into talks of marriage and William is head over heels in love. But as we know from his voiceover, he's headed for a fall.
For its first hour, The Hottest State does well capturing the delirious euphoria of love which only makes the awfulness of the breakup all the more distressing; when Sarah changes her heart, we're as blindsided as William.
Despite a dinner scene with her caustic mother (Sonia Braga) and a hint of background history, Sarah is opaque, drawing depth more from her Moreno than Hawke's writing. (Which leads one to wonder whether Sarah is intended to merely be the idealized object of William's affection.)
Since everything we experience is through William's eyes, it's reasoned that all we need to understand is his longing and disappointment. And as William gets caught in a miserable spiral of neurotic despair, his all-consuming obsession takes on the uncomfortable ring of reality.
There's nothing particularly new or profound in The Hottest State, and it's inevitable some will complain that a couple of kids splitting up is hardly earth-shattering stuff. But that's the film's point: William and Sarah are kids, and first love feels profound and earth-shattering. Hawke understands the madness that only youth can experience: desperate, idiotic and hopelessly pure.
And while his writing often becomes too precious and self-conscious by half, there are moments of real honesty. His ear is attuned to twentysomething boho sensibilities of love and how heartbreak feeds into William's damaged masculinity. Criticisms about the film's repetitious self-absorbed voiceovers and gauzy flashbacks are valid, but neither derails The Hottest State's ability to demonstrate love's ability to heal and wound in equal measure. In particular, a trio of tortured phone messages to Sarah and William's post-breakup outburst of, "I've been you before and I know that you suck," show Hawke's ability to surprise us with the fear-fueled rage of unrequited love.
But don't be fooled by The Hottest State's indie trappings. It requires a less jaded eye and a patient aesthetic to appreciate Hawke's modest emotional, albeit self-indulgent, goals. But with a strong cast (including Hawke himself in a nicely modulated cameo as William's absentee dad), Christopher Norr's lovely cinematography and Jesse Harris's terrific soundtrack, the actor has taken a big step forward as a filmmaker.
Opens Friday, Sept. 21, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.