First-time director-scenarist Miguel Arteta demonstrates precocious polish and ambition with "Star Maps," which stays consistently interesting through some risky tonal shifts. Still, the $2.5 million Fox Searchlight forked out for worldwide rights at Sundance may prove more generous than wise at the end of the day, as this seriocomedy's eventual pull toward depressing, unpleasant story elements renders it something less than a crowd pleaser even by arthouse standards. At start, baby-faced 18-year-old Carlos (Douglas Spain) returns by bus to L.A. from Mexico, where he's spent two years living with his grandparents for reasons never fully explained. On the home front, however, there are reasons aplenty for staying away: Carlos' father, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), is a patriarchal bully with shady business dealings; mother Teresa (Martha Velez) has retreated rather than recovered from a mental breakdown; heavyset older brother Juancito (Vincent Chandler) speaks little, watches TV and acts out a pathetic fantasy life drawn from Mexican wrestling folk hero Santo. Only sister Maria (Lysa Flores) maintains a sane grip, but she's trapped by her dutiful housemaid-caretaker role

With fierce ambitions to attain acting success (imagined in award-clutching, autograph-hounded daydreams), Carlos reluctantly engages Pepe’s “help,” despite Maria’s warnings. After all, Pepe knows real industry insiders — they’re his clients, as a pimp whose teenage male hustlers hawk maps to stars’ homes on L.A. street corners as a cover for paid sex with patrons of either gender. Pepe was “made a man” this way by his father; one generation later, he doesn’t bat an eye over the notion of renting out his own son.

This distasteful concept requires a hard swallow from viewers, and pic’s slightly loopy, genial early progress doesn’t portend enough thematic heft to ballast script’s later turns. Carlos’ horizontal “acting” duly impresses Jennifer (Kandeyce Jensen), a regular Pepe customer who’s also a bona fide TV star. Earnest (if selfish) intentions lead her to book Carlos as a bit player on her nighttime soap. This big break is exactly what he hoped for, but it sits poorly with angry, controlling Pepe. Meanwhile, Mom gets more delusional, and Maria’s tentative romance with a smitten, nebbishy pharmacist (Al Vincente) risks being destroyed by contact with her very dysfunctional family.

“Star Maps” maintains low-key credibility and occasional charm. Yet the narrative grows darker than execution can fully support. Main dilemma is that Pepe is a truly repulsive character — violent, sadistic, sarcastically manipulative toward both family and his long-strung-along prostitute-mistress (Annette Murphy). Carlos’ naive dreams of stardom and Teresa’s hallucinations of Mexican screen-comedy star Cantinflas (played as a ghost by Herbert Siguenza) provide a magical-realist tenor that’s simply overwhelmed by tale’s uglier real-world developments. Pepe’s eventual comeuppance seems temporary rather than truly cleansing, resolving nothing. Pic ends on a sober, ambiguous note, with Carlos’ acting dreams possibly dashed forever.

Arteta demonstrates assured directorial control over performances and pace. Murphy is particularly good as a hardened case who nonetheless proves vulnerable, even to the point of enlisting Carlos’ sympathy.

Handling of the WASPy Jennifer’s simultaneous callousness and sincerity (she does like Carlos — even if he’s just a sex toy) feels apt. But the central family dynamic is finally too sensational and cruel for helmer’s seriocomic tenor; the film isn’t up to making so much baroque tragedy digestible.

Tech work is very good on a modest budget, with particularly savvy input from thesp Flores’ musical direction, which provides soundtrack a surfeit of hot, mostly Latino, rock tunes

Star Maps

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Flan de Coco Films production, in association with King Films. Produced by Matthew Greenfield. Executive producers, Esther Shapiro, Chris Iovenko, Scott King, Mitchell Kelly, Beth Colt. Co-producers, Eden J. Shapiro, Ron Nyswaner, Kathleen Brown Corbin. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Screenplay, Arteta, story by Arteta, Matthew Greenfield

Crew

. Camera (color), Chuy Chavez; editors, Jeff Betancourt, Tom McArdle, Tony Selzer; musical director, Lysa Flores; music consultants, Smokey Hormel, Joey Waronker, Tony Maxwell; production design, Carol Strober; sound, Yehuda Maayan; associate producer, Robin Brown; casting, Belinda Gardea. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 23, 1997. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Carlos ..... Douglas Spain Pepe ..... Efrain Figueroa Jennifer ..... Kandeyce Jensen Teresa ..... Martha Velez Maria ..... Lysa Flores Letti ..... Annette Murphy Martin ..... Robin Thomas Juancito ..... Vincent Chandler Fred ..... Al Vincente Cantinflas' Ghost ..... Herbert Siguenza Frank Rivers ..... Jeff Michalski
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more