A successful mix of scripted drama with on-location improv, and a rare instance of U.S. narrative cinema that engages the politics of the moment, Mora Stephens' "Conventioneers" refreshes on several levels.

A successful mix of scripted drama with on-location improv, and a rare instance of U.S. narrative cinema that engages the politics of the moment, Mora Stephens’ “Conventioneers” refreshes on several levels. Tale of a liberal and conservative renewing an old attraction during the 2004 Republican National Convention avoids polemics and caricature for a naturalism that accrues considerable punch. Pic has been kicking around the fest circuit for some months, suggesting low distrib enthusiasm. But small-scale theatrical exposure remains possible, sympathetic cable placement (in the Sundance or IFC realm) even more so.

Beginning two days before the convention — with much footage shot among the surrounding protests and in Madison Square Garden itself — feature establishes the principal characters in brisk strokes. Evidently a rising politico who’s just moved to D.C. with his (unhappy) wife, Dave (Matthew Mabe) is a gung-ho, clean-cut, square-jawed Bush supporter representing his Texas home state.

As Dave settles in to his hotel and commences networking, Lea (Woodwyn Koons) is hard at work with activist organizers, prepping anti-Bush actions to take place throughout the week. Her New Haven-based life seems as untethered as Dave’s is buttoned-down, with no real career and scant income at age 30 — lacks driven home by her father (Robert O’Gorman), who she’s staying with while in town. Dad passes along a message from Dave, Lea’s old college friend, who’s thought to look her up during his first-ever Manhattan visit.

Attraction flickers anew, even as their reunion in a cafe degenerates into furious political debate. Both soon regret that, and after a next day’s drink or 12 they’re going at it in his hotel room. Still, the sex can’t prevent politics from driving a wedge between them.

Seesawing relationship, complicated by Dave’s iffy marriage and Lea’s Connecticut b.f., unfolds “Medium Cool”-style against the backdrop of real, divisive public events, culminating amid thousands of street protestors during the convention’s close.

Pic’s biggest how-did-they-do-that coup is a long shot at the actual convention of Bush with another character, left-sympathizer Dylan (Alek Friedman), a professional sign-language interpreter whose job and politics have led him to a career crisis.Late suggestion that Dave may have undergone a (tentative) political conversion seems undercooked, but it’s compensated for by a mule’s-kick epilogue that plants a toe on acid Neil LaBute terrain.

Finely penned and played characters are a mass of grey zones, their conflicting high ideals often colliding into personal weak points. Focused as she is politically, Lea for instance is childishly oversensitive toward criticism, while often insensitive toward others’ feelings. Koons, Friedman and Mabe in particular are all terrific.

Filmmakers’ own left-leaning sympathies are occasionally felt around the margins, but “Conventioneers’” achievement lies in its honoring the sincerity and passion on both sides. Script by Stephens and producer-editor-spouse Joel Viertel walks a tricky middle path with seemingly casual, semi-improvised aplomb. En route, it manages more than a little humor, genuine sexiness, and breaking-news immediacy.

Package balances verite feel and pro polish on a budgetary whisper. Offbeat score by H. Scott Salinas and Danny Manor is a significant plus.

Closing credits note that many of the crew were arrested and detained by the New York Police Dept. while videotaping outdoors during convention week.

Conventioneers

Production

A Cinema Libre, Hyphenate Films production. Produced by Joel Viertel. Executive producer, Philippe Diaz. Co-producer, Thomas Viertel. Directed by Mora Mi-Ok Stephens. Screenplay, Stephens, Joel Viertel.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Andreas Burgess, Brian O'Carroll; editor, Viertel; music, H. Scott Salinas, Danny Manor; music supervisor, Jennifer Brown; production designer, Steve Swenson; costume designer, Stephens; sound, Tony Jenkins, David Doran;. Reviewed at San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival, March 20, 2006. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Matthew Mabe, Woodwyn Koons, Alek Friedman, Alicia Harding, Jennifer Brown, T. Sahara Meer, Krista Kujat, Robert O'Gorman, Trevor Murphy.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more