First-time feature helmer Amy Glazer, adapting a San Francisco-set play by Stephen Belber, whose 2004 premiere she directed at that city's Magic Theater, delivers an engrossing drama in "Drifting Elegant." Tale of thirtysomethings headed toward a complicated collective meltdown has some cluttered and credibility-stretching aspects that are nonetheless smoothed over by sharp dialogue, perfs and direction.

First-time feature helmer Amy Glazer, adapting a San Francisco-set play by Stephen Belber, whose 2004 premiere she directed at that city’s Magic Theater, delivers an engrossing drama in “Drifting Elegant.” Tale of thirtysomethings headed toward a complicated collective meltdown has some cluttered and credibility-stretching aspects that are nonetheless smoothed over by sharp dialogue, perfs and direction. Lack of marquee names and an easy conceptual hook won’t make this an automatically attractive pickup. But fest buzz could be worked into arthouse release in the hands of an enterprising distrib.

As in Belber’s “Tape” (made by Richard Linklater into an underseen 2001 film), personal relationships turn into lightning rods for examining larger social, sexual and political issues. Belber is a deft enough writer to pull that off without sacrificing character depth, though his twisty narratives can border on the overly schematic. In that regard, “Drifting” actually plays better onscreen than it did on stage; set in the real world, its occasional didacticism is less obvious. It benefits particularly from being lensed all over the Bay Area — nimble action here is seldom limited to protags’ apartment, whereas “Tape” took place in real time in one motel room.

Young marrieds Nate (Josh Stamberg), a journalist, and Jen (Jennifer Mudge) are the sort of conscientious young liberals-with-trust-funds often drawn to S.F. Both of them are at uncertain points in their careers, and the strain is affecting their relationship.

Nate returned to the States a year ago from a correspondent’s post in Nairobi. There, he became close — to a degree he won’t admit even to himself — with Elizabeth (Lenore Thomas), a co-worker who also returned to San Francisco around the same time.

On her deathbed (from cancer) some months later, Elizabeth recanted an accusation of rape she made against Victor (Donnie Keshawarz), an Arab-American man she’d taken home from a bar. Now he’s being released from prison, and in a whopping breach of journalistic ethics, the interest-conflicted Nate toys with writing an article about him — but perhaps not the forgiving one Victor thought.

Meanwhile, Jen wants to do something meaningful with her life (and money) — perhaps putting it into the couple’s longtime friend Renny’s (Coby Bell) plan to develop a gated community marketed toward middle-class black professionals like himself. Tensions around these and other issues are exacerbated when Victor shows up on the couple’s doorstep, broke and homeless. Improbably, it’s Jen who decides this alleged rapist can sleep on the couch, though his intelligent, provoking presence doesn’t help matters when she, Renny and Nate vent their pent-up hostilities on each other.

In the aftermath, Victor reveals what really happened with the late Elizabeth.

Script has a lot of thematic balls to keep in the air, and sometimes the shows. But aside from the rare moment that’s too on-the-nose, dialogue is vivid, witty and character-driven, punched across by thesps at home in credibly complex roles. Result is stimulating drama with considerable humor and charged moments.

Production values are resourceful on a budget, with smooth visual contributions, and a good instrumental rock soundtrack by vet musician Danny Kortchmar.

Drifting Elegant

Production

A South Bay Film Studios presentation in association with South Beach Prods. of a Dallas/Martinez production. Produced by Barnaby Dallas, Nick Martinez, Mitch Glazer, Rick Hubert, Stephen Belber. Executive producers, James Dallas, Rudy Grimaldo, Robert Martinez, Mike Adams, Jerri Carmo, Ned Kopp. Co-producers, Coby Bell, Jack Igoe. Directed by Amy Glazer. Screenplay, Stephen Belber, from his play.

Crew

Camera (color, Super-16-to-HD), Jim Orr; editor, Matt Barber; music, Danny Kortchmar; production designer, John Harrison York; art director, Daniel Dziubczynski; set decorator, Nickie Zepeda; costume designer, Fumiko Bielefeldt; sound, John LaRosa; assistant directors, Jack Igoe, Nicholas Cola; casting, Sharon Klein, Alana Kleinman. Reviewed at Mill Valley Festival, Oct. 11, 2006. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Nate - Josh Stamberg Jen - Jennifer Mudge Renny - Coby Bel Victor - Donnie Keshawarz Elizabeth - Lenore Thomas

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