The tale of a neo-Nazi skinhead in love with a black single mother who's channeling Adolf Hitler in a psychiatric hospital, "Neo Ned" may be ludicrous on paper, but it has what fans of independent film are looking for -- atmosphere, humanity and just a dash of fantastic drama.

The tale of a neo-Nazi skinhead in love with a black single mother who’s channeling Adolf Hitler in a psychiatric hospital, “Neo Ned” may be ludicrous on paper, but it has what fans of independent film are looking for — atmosphere, humanity and just a dash of fantastic drama. And while swastikas and racial epithets are part and parcel of its emotional and tonal consistency, the film’s abundant humor never fails to show through, which could translate into cult and sleeper hit status in the right hands.

Title character is a young man committed to a psychiatric hospital for his involvement in the murder of a black man. There, he meets another patient — a beautiful remote young black woman who appears possessed by Hitler.

Yet, a potentially disturbing set of circumstances is made not just palatable but touching, because Ned (Jeremy Renner) is so desperately alone, and Rachael (Gabrielle Union) is so smart she won’t be baited by a guy she feels is more deserving of pity than hate.

Despite the characterizations, the undertone of “Neo Ned” is actually one of tolerance and understanding. Rachael, who sporadically barks out orders in German, is a poignantly broken young woman with a history of being sexually abused. And Union, on the verge of major stardom (“Bring It On,” the upcoming “Honeymooners”) doesn’t miss a beat. Ned comes from a home where his father was incarcerated much of the time and his mother (a winning cameo by Sally Kirkland) is a regular guest on Jerry Springer-style TV shows. What he wants is to belong — and if no one else will have him, he’ll take the Nazis. Renner gives a captivating performance, laying bare Ned’s underlying pathos even as the character ostensibly tries to hide it.

Some auds might find it hard to sit through Ned’s regular use of the N-word; that the movie is so kind to a jackbooted racist, even a half-hearted one like Ned, might rub people the wrong way, too. But director Van Fischer — working off the Slamdance award-winning screenplay by Tim Boughn — balances things like the guy with the pie plates.

Neo Ned

Production

A David E. Allen/Blue Raven Films/Mark Borman production in association with Kismet Entertainment Group. (International sales, Andrew Herwitz, the Film Sales Group.) Produced by Borman, Valerie McCaffrey, Allen. Executive producer, Harmon Kaslow. Co-producer, Brian Patrick O'Toole. Directed by Van Fischer. Screenplay by Tim Boughn.

Crew

Camera (color), Chris Manley; editors, Amy Duddleston, Bipasha Shom; music, Tom Wolfe, Manish Raval; production designer, Stephen J. Readmond; art director, Johnny Hulet; set decorator, Karin McGaughey; costume designer, True Cross; sound, Trip Brock; associate producers, Sam Childs, Joe Adams, Kasey Stevens; casting, Valerie McCaffrey. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 28, 2005. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Ned - Jeremy Renner Rachael - Gabrielle Union Johnny - Ethan Suplee Dr. Magnuson - Cary Elwes Shelly Nelson - Sally Kirkland Ned's dad - Michael Shamus Wiles

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