A high school quarterback goes to Gotham to escape his hometown's obsession with football in Paul Black's debut "America Brown." Black has a knack with actors, handling the romance between Ryan Kwanten's Texas country boy and Natasha Lyonne's Shirley MacLaine-ish New Yawker. But the characters spend too much time standing around while toting enough emotional baggage to supply a small airline.

A hot-shot high school quarterback goes to Gotham to escape his hometown’s obsession with football in Paul Black’s debut outing “America Brown.” Black has a knack with actors, particularly in handling the aw-shucksy romance between Ryan Kwanten’s Texas country boy and Natasha Lyonne’s Shirley MacLaine-ish New Yawker. But the characters spend too much time standing around moodily while toting enough emotional baggage to supply a small airline. Name cast, occasional deft touches and nifty contrast between the two locales cannot overcome script’s terminal awkwardness. Cable seems logical next step.

America “Ricky” Brown (played by Aussie Kwanten) arrives unannounced on the doorstep of black priest John Cross (Hill Harper), a legendary ex-quarterback from his hometown in West Texas. Brown’s father figure/older brother Daniel (Mark Rapaport) has just dropped dead, and all-American teen Ricky is seeking sanctuary with the only other human being he knows to have renounced football.

But Cross has his own mysterious burdens, some involving his athletic past (flashback to promoters and coaches proffering painkillers and steroids), but most concerning the haunting, mysterious-in-her-own-right Rosie (Elodie Bouchez). When he’s not staring blankly out of the window or at the snow on the TV screen, Cross exchanges wounded looks with Rosie over the host at Mass or the Danish in a coffee shop, occasionally wrenching himself away from his own problems long enough to acknowledge the anguish of his uninvited guest.

Meanwhile Ricky forges a relationship with street waif/waitress Vera (Lyonne), whose big peepers are awash with vulnerability beneath the blue eye shadow and gunky mascara. He also develops a friendship with Rosie, who offers succor of a less sexual sort (indeed, the easy camaraderie that is conveyed between this ad hoc foursome is one of pic’s strengths).

Black creates a remarkably unthreatening New York of sunlit rectory rooms, funky neighborhood apartments, and night-time strolls by the river. In contrast, Brown’s heartland hometown stresses an unwholesome addiction to football: Good ole boy Bo (Leo Burmester) drips Southern charm as he dickers with college recruiter cronies, upping the kickback ante; Ricky’s beloved older brother Danny — shown in recent and not-so-recent flashbacks where Rapaport’s Brooklyn intensity comes off almost as insanity in the laid-back Texas setting — dispenses pigskin wisdom like Gospel as he fiercely exhorts his little brother to gridiron greatness.

Not content to billboard the damage caused by football as an unholy combo of religion and big business, Black has Ricky’s outspoken but supportive mother (a magnificent Karen Black in one of her less grotesque mature roles) deliver an impassioned denunciation in the apparent belief that you can never hammer home a point too often.

Tech credits are fine, though intrusive, each-time-a-little-more flashbacks to fragmented memories of unexplained traumas not only end anti-climactically but also sabotage pic’s otherwise more nuanced cinematic values.

America Brown

Production

A CWL production in association with Creation Films. Produced by Christine Weiss Lurie, Andrew Fierberg,Paul Black. Directed, written by Paul Black.

Crew

Camera (color), Richard Rutkowski; editor, Keiko Deguchi; music, Michael Montes; production designer, Ethan Tobman; costume designer, Bega Metzner; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Hsu; casting, Adrienne Stern. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, New York, April 12, 2004. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Ryan Kwanten, Hill Harper, Karen Black, Natasha Lyonne, Elodie Bouchez, Leo Burmester, Frankie Faison, Michael Rapaport.
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