Though brimming with fresh ideas, zany humor and offbeat characters, the aptly titled comedy "How to Make the Cruelest Month" also displays the sheer audacity, messy structure and lack of discipline that often characterize first features. As writer and director, Kip Koenig exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to the raw energy and sexual and moral confusion of American youngsters today. Drastic cuts, particularly in the midsection, should improve theatrical prospects for a picture that's vastly uneven but holds appeal for the twentysomething crowd, which is likely to connect emotionally with the vibrant ensemble onscreen.

Though brimming with fresh ideas, zany humor and offbeat characters, the aptly titled comedy “How to Make the Cruelest Month” also displays the sheer audacity, messy structure and lack of discipline that often characterize first features. As writer and director, Kip Koenig exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to the raw energy and sexual and moral confusion of American youngsters today. Drastic cuts, particularly in the midsection, should improve theatrical prospects for a picture that’s vastly uneven but holds appeal for the twentysomething crowd, which is likely to connect emotionally with the vibrant ensemble onscreen.

Pic recalls, in spirit and ambition, if not in execution, the early comedies of Woody Allen and, more recently, David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster.” In sharp contrast to the anomie and alienation that mark the youth movies of Gregg Araki and Richard Linklater, Koenig seems more forgiving and tolerant of the various anxieties that beset American youth of the 1990s.

Almost a female version of the young Woody Allen screen character, protagonist is Bell (Clea DuVall), a bright, neurotic, fast-talking, sexually confused woman. Like Allen’s protagonists, Bell periodically steps out of her role and addresses the camera directly, sharing with the audience her innermost feelings.

In the first, rather deftly scripted monologue, Bell confides the impossibility of realizing New Year’s resolutions. Two goals high on her list are to quit smoking and to fall in love. Since the first resolution proves taxing, Bell channels all her energy into achieving the second one — against all odds.

It doesn’t help that she’s the least attractive and most problematic of three sisters. Sarah (Jorja Fox), the eldest, is happily married and about to give birth, whereas Dot (Amy Smart), a graceful blonde, is clearly the family’s beauty. To complicate matters, Dot has an affair with Bell’s ex, Leonard (Gabriel Mann), which increases Bell’s insecurities. In an early sequence, Bell takes Leonard to a remote place, begins making love to him in the car and then runs away, leaving the naked man stranded and bewildered.

Finding his way back home, Leonard stumbles into the house of a married couple, Manhattan (Dennis Haysbert) and Christina (“Secrets & Lies’ ” Marianne Jean-Baptiste).Out of desperation and confusion, Bell even entertains the idea that she might be a lesbian and goes on a date with a woman. Hysterically rushing from one encounter to another, Bell also deals with her eccentric Uncle Jerry (John David Souther), who’s also her teacher, and her laid-back mom (Mary Kay Place).

Though the yarn is set in a small college town and the action is confined to a few buildings, “How to Make” assumes the logic of a zany road movie, populated by a large gallery of eccentric characters. Problem is, Koenig tries to do too much, throwing more balls in the air than he can possibly juggle.

In the lead role, DuVall is well cast as the tomboyish, neurotic Bell, though her performance is occasionally too intensely mannered. The large ensemble is, for the most part, exuberant and enticing, with standout work from Place, Souther and Mann.

How to Make the Cruelest Month

Production

A Fugue State/Magnet Prods. presen-tation. Produced by Alison Dickey, Mark Lipson. Executive producer, James R. Hedges. Co-producer, Caitlin Abramovitz. Directed, written by Kip Koenig.

With

Bell Bryant - Clea DuVall Leonard Crane - Gabriel Mann Uncle Jerry - John David Souther Mary Bryant - Mary Kay Place Christina Parks - Marianne Jean-Baptiste Manhattan Parks - Dennis Haysbert Fryer Crane - John Voskamp Dot Bryant - Amy Smart Westy - James Duvall Sarah Bryant - Jorja Fox Dr. Rutledge Christopher Gartin Rickey Frederick Weller
Camera (color), Julian Whatley; editor, Chris Figler; music, Jeff Martin; production design, Jodi Ginnever; set decoration, Melissa K. Frankel; costume design, Agnes NaDene Baddoo, Dalhia Schuette; sound (Dolby), Larry Blake; associate producers, Scott Kennedy, Luis Barajas, Alberto Gieco; assistant director, Marie O'Keefe; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (dramatic competition), Jan. 19, 1998. Running time: 99 min.
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