Sharp dialogue, idiosyncratic characters and a wickedly brilliant structure that subtly derails expectation make "Laura Smiles" a rarity among mellers. Jason Ruscio's sophomore feature traces the quietly psycho, often hilarious disintegration of an American housewife. "Laura" could become an indie "American Beauty."

Sharp dialogue, idiosyncratic characters and a wickedly brilliant structure that subtly derails expectation make “Laura Smiles” a rarity among mellers. The most unjudgmental view of sex and the suburbs since Kim Novak sought solace from the nearest warm body in “Strangers When We Meet,” Jason Ruscio’s sophomore feature traces the quietly psycho, often hilarious disintegration of an American housewife (a Tippie Hedren-perfect Petra Wright). With strong critical backing and judicious handling, “Laura” could become an indie “American Beauty.”

A light-splashed meeting between two soon-to-be-married young lovers shows Laura (Wright), a fledgling actress, and Chris (Kip Pardue), a neophyte writer, both blond, engaging and witty. But the good times don’t last long; Chris is almost immediately knocked out of the picture by a passing van.

Nine years later, Laura is ensconced in a solidly upper-middle-class suburban house with insurance exec husband Mark (Mark Derwin) and 8-year-old son. Everything around her appears staid, distanced, established.

Yet all is not well in suburbia. The couple is passionless, Laura is having death-filled dreams and seeing a psychiatrist to help her make sense of the repressed memories that have started to resurface, eroding the smooth fabric of her days.

These moments of spaciness or inattention, soon widen into time warps, as helmer Ruscio returns to previously shown, seemingly integral scenes to reveal what was not shown before. The strange undercurrents between Laura and family friend Paul (Jonathan Silverman), for instance, are explained by an affair begun when Laura visited Paul to drop off his daughter’s backpack.

What falls into these strange hiatuses becomes increasingly outlandish. In one scene, Laura picks up a spiral notebook in a supermarket and caresses it, lost in thought, until a concerned teen marking prices asks if she’s OK. In the subsequent replay, Ruscio first throws in a flashback sending Laura’s and Chris’ relationship back to their first meeting over a similar notebook, then shows Laura grab for the solicitous teen grocery clerk and pull him out to her car for a desperate quickie. A farcical montage trots out a parade of pudgy mail carriers, hapless deliverymen or nondescript salesmen Laura has dragged into the interstices of her life to stave off her unacknowledged pain.

Lines between fantasy and reality, past and present begin to blur, until a final, brilliantly nuanced segue morphs Laura’s second life back into her first.

Pic maintains a delicate tonal balance not only in the depiction of its delusional heroine, but in the surprisingly well fleshed-out, expertly thesped surrounding figures.

Ruscio and cinematographer Sion Michel manage their limited resources well, using two different digital systems for past and present, deploying a hand-held, overexposed aesthetic to connote youthful spontaneity and a higher resolution, more formal palette to illumine the surface tension of bourgeois respectability.

Laura Smiles

Production

A Ted Hartley/RKO Pictures presentation of an RKO Pictures production. Produced by Hartley, Ric Arthur. Executive Producers, Joe Di Maio, Paul Speaker, Michael Klein, Robert Cain. Directed, written by Jason Ruscio.

Crew

Camera (color, DV/HD), Sion Michel; editor, Scott Martin; music, John Davis; production designer, Bryce Holtshousen; costume designer, Azalia Snail; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Both; associate producer, Dean Valentine. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (NYNY - competing), April 28, 2005. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Petra Wright, Kip Pardue, Jonathan Silverman, Mark Derwin, Ted Hartley.

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