This pretentiously titled, zero-budget N.Y. indie airily pulls off what Hollywood mightily strives for -- a believable romantic comedy. Admittedly, pic's loving couple, two certifiably neurotic artists, hardly spring from central casting. "Particles" may prove too marginal to reach wide auds, but might woo limited theatrical life before cable beckons.

This pretentiously titled, zero-budget N.Y. indie airily pulls off what Hollywood mightily strives for — a believable romantic comedy. Admittedly, pic’s loving couple, two certifiably neurotic artists, hardly spring from central casting. She, a painter (writer/director Jennifer Elster), can’t bring herself to visit her drug-addict father who’s dying of AIDS, while he, a writer (Gale Harold of “Queer as Folk” repute), has got major germ issues. But together they’re unbeatable, so shocked at successfully initiating human contact that they impatiently drop their defining neuroses. Basically a chick pic, “Particles” may prove too marginal to reach wide auds, but charm of players might woo limited theatrical life before cable beckons.

Pic unfolds over 48 hours, the pre-credit sequence sampling out-of-context scenes labeled “today” or “tomorrow” before settling into straight-ahead chronology. Lilli (Elster) is spooked about her imminent gallery opening and haunted by visions of her father. She flashes back to her childhood in the hands of her affectionate but hopelessly stoned dad that has left her defensive and insecure about her art.

Enter germaphobe Morrison (Harold), who sits in his car all day, unwilling to sally forth into the microbe-crawling streets, jotting down notes for what’s presumably the sequel to his first book, the fittingly titled “Notes From a Vehicle.” He holds strained conversations with his painfully aloof father in his parents’ luxurious home, and performs complex sanitary ablutions involving surgical caps and sterilized gauze in the stainless steel bathroom of his own apartment.

Subject matter seemingly leans toward the pathetic, but Elster graces both main characters with a wry distance from their own dysfunctionality that makes them strangely appealing. Kindred spirits, they immediately recognize each other’s need to keep the world at bay. Neither magically escapist nor psychologically correct, “Particles” proposes a pragmatic adaptability at one with the lived-in New York neighborhoods and artists’ hardscrabble career paths.

Within two days, the couple triumphantly sheds years’ worth of hang-ups. To Elster’s credit, she makes the characters’ instant conversions seem less miraculous than long overdue.

Cherish Magiennis’ production design tends toward the lush and color-saturated, and Toshiro Yamaguchi’s hi-def lensing gives upbeat patina to Gotham streets and rooms.

Particles of Truth

Production

A Matter production. Produced by Jennifer Elster. Co-producers, Lewis Helfer, Terry Leonard. Directed, written by Jennifer Elster.

Crew

Camera (color, HDCam). Toshiro Yamaguchi; editor, Ron Len; music supervisor, Mark Wike; production designer, Cherish Magennis; sound, Eban Baume. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, April 24, 2003. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- NY, NY.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Jennifer Elster, Gale Harold, Richard Wilkinson, Elizabeth Van Meter, Alan Samulski. Larry Pine, Leslie Lyles, Susan Floyd, Mark Margolis.
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