Any helmer who'd label his debut feature "A Tommy O'Haver Trifle" clearly isn't aiming for profundity. Still, you'd think a movie whose sole point is basically "Don't fall head-over-heels on the basis of good looks alone" would avoid being as swell-looking but substance-depleted as "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss."

Any helmer who’d label his debut feature “A Tommy O’Haver Trifle” clearly isn’t aiming for profundity. Still, you’d think a movie whose sole point is basically “Don’t fall head-over-heels on the basis of good looks alone” would avoid being as swell-looking but substance-depleted as “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.” Pleasant but paper-thin romantic comedy lacks the stuff to travel beyond gay fests and very limited theatrical dates.

It does, however, demonstrate tyro director Tommy O’Haver’s visual flair from the get-go, as a series of Polaroid snaps illustrates photog protag’s early years in amusing shorthand, followed by a cool neo-’60s credit sequence of line-frugging drag queens.

Voiceover’s promise that pic hopes in a small way to “help bring heteros and homos together” proves misleading, though, since ensuing narrative revolves around little more than ye olde I’m-in-Love-With-a-Straight-Boy dilemma. Billy (Sean P. Hayes) is an aspiring fine-arts photographer who’s amiable but too often self-defeating in both career and romance. He’s currently seeing hunksome Fernando (Armando Valdes-Kennedy), who already has a steady boyfriend — so that’s one dead end.

Another likely one arises in the form of coffee-shop waiter Gabriel (Brad Rowe). He’s blond, he’s gorgeous, he’s friendly, he sends out mixed signals — and keeps mentioning that “girlfriend in San Francisco” at every opportunity. Nonetheless, against all friends’ advice, Billy grows smitten. He recruits Gabriel to model for his planned series of Polaroid-shot re-created Great Hollywood Moments. And so the is-he-or-isn’t-he teasefest commences.

Fairly well connected amidst L.A.’s Lifestyles of the Wacky and Artistic, Billy introduces Gabriel around at various parties and gallery openings. To his dismay, latter is soon auditioning for much bigger-league modeling assignments under the lascivious patronage of famed fashion lenser Rex Webster (Paul Bartel). Is Gabriel just stringing Billy along? Or is this new kid in town merely at a confused, developmental point on the Kinsey scale?

There’s a deft, wordless scene in which the two young men share a drunken latenight bed; their gee-we’re-so-tired, “accidental” touching deliciously conveys a sexual tension neither quite has the nerve to resolve.

But elsewhere, feature’s fair-to-weak dialogue and lack of narrative force render that relationship’s outcome less than compelling. By the time we discover Gabriel’s true, shallow-opportunist nature, we have to wonder why pic — and Hayes’ appealing, wry hero — took so long to gain so little insight.

At least the journey’s painless. While his script could be a lot wittier, O’Haver keeps things pacey and colorful. The Southern California arty-trendoid scene that proved too cute for bearing in two other recent U.S. gay indies, “Never Met Picasso” and “Leather Jacket Love Story,” is more purposefully milked here. The whole production neatly amplifies that milieu, with outstanding contribs from Franco-Giacomo Carbone’s tasteful yet kitschy Day-Glo production design, Mark Mervis’ bright Panavision lensing and good use of oldies by the likes of Xavier Cugat and Petula Clark.

Indeed, this “Kiss” has nearly everything going for it but a solid screenplay — which of course constitutes a big “but.” Cast is likable on down the line, though you might well wish for better development in principal support characters like Billy’s long-suffering friend Perry (Richard Ganoung) and his similarly unlucky-in-love flatmate Georgiana (Meredith Scott Lynn). Mildly funny fantasy segs let hero envision his infatuation in terms that spoof “From Here to Eternity,” black-tie-and-tails musicals and “Vertigo.”

“Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” is so technically polished and charming in its peripheral values that you wish there was a core here worthy of them. But even a self-confessed “trifle” needs more writerly know-how. Next time, one hopes, O’Haver will bring his obvious talent to bear on a better screenplay — someone else’s, perhaps.

Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss

Production

A Revolutionary Eye LLC production. Produced by David Moseley. Co-producers, Meredith Scott Lynn, Irene Turner. Directed, written by Tommy O'Haver.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision), Mark Mervis; editor, Jeff Betancourt; music, Alan Ari Lazar; production design, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; costumes, Julia Bartholomew; sound (Dolby), Jeff Bennett; choreography, Michele Spears, Joseph McKee; associate producer, Marcus Hu; casting, Robert McGee. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 92 min.

With

Sean P. Hayes, Brad Rowe, Richard Ganoung, Meredith Scott Lynn, Matthew Ashford, Armando Valdes-Kennedy, Paul Bartel, Carmine D. Giovinazzo, Holly Woodlawn.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more