Writer-director Russell Brown's "Race You to the Bottom," is a well-observed road pic about two mid-20s Angelenos driving up to the Napa Valley for a part-business, part-pleasure weekend that turns out to be mostly painful. Barbed little character study has plenty of modest virtues, but in commercial terms will face an uphill climb.

Writer-director Russell Brown’s first feature, “Race You to the Bottom,” is a well-observed road pic about two mid-20s Angelenos driving up to the Napa Valley for a part-business, part-pleasure weekend that turns out to be mostly painful. Barbed little character study has plenty of modest virtues, but in commercial terms will face an uphill climb: It’s a bad heterosexual date movie (more a date-gone-wrong), has too limited a gay angle for that demographic, and is about characters who are not particularly likable as individuals or as a couple.

Though both have boyfriends, Maggie (Amber Benson from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Nathan (Cole Williams of “8 Simple Rules”) have been having a secret affair for some months. He invites her along on a travel-writing assignment to visit Napa wineries.

En route they briefly visit her ex-b.f. (Justin Hartley) and best girlfriend (Danielle Harris), now married and “settled down” to uneven satisfaction levels. Left alone with the uber-straight, jockish husband, Nathan scores a conquest sure to have repercussions later on. The visitors then move on to do Ecstasy in San Francisco.

As they proceed farther north, the odd discordant notes grow louder. Dissatisfied with her own boring-nice-guy mate back home, Maggie mulls getting closer to Nathan — they’re good sex partners, and on the same personality plane as rather bratty, snide, self-centered young urbanities. One might say they deserve each other.

But for all his barely sublimated homophobia as a “mostly” gay man who disdains the “gay scene,” bisexual Nathan isn’t ready to commit to the other side of the fence. Then again, maybe he just can’t commit, period. His own b.f. is a tabula-rasa boytoy.Things rapidly degenerate as Nathan’s behavior grows more loutish, and Maggie gets more shrill and accusatory. The trip ends with a seemingly permanent rift that wreaks collateral damage on their relationships in Los Angeles. Yet chance-meeting coda a year later suggests duo might not be done with each other yet.

Brown’s screenplay and direction, both economical and unshowy, sketch character dynamics in crisp terms that resist the temptation to explain all, beg sympathy or heighten drama for purely histrionic purposes. While some viewers may find lead figures too shallow and irksome — qualities usually given full play only in supporting roles — they should strike a chord among auds of the same age, or those who’ve since outgrown early adulthood’s rough edges.

Perfs are solid all around, tech and design contribs sharp. Marco Fargnoli’s lensing captures beauty of the surroundings without defusing pic’s bite.

Race You To The Bottom

Production

A Simon Prods. production. Produced by Russell Brown, Roni Deitz. Directed, written by Russell Brown.

Crew

Camera (color), Marco Fargnoli; editor, Annette Davey; music, Ryan Beveridge; art director, Doran Meyers; costume designer, Kristen Anacker; sound, Brian O'Hara; assistant director, Barbara Topsoe-Rothenborg; casting, Shannon Makhanian. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, June 24, 2005. Running time: 72 MIN.

With

Amber Benson, Cole Williams, Jeremy Lelliott, Justin Zachary, Danielle Thomas, Justin Hartley.

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