Material that easily could have been turned into cringe-inducing TV movie sap has been handled with reasonable intelligence and authenticity in "Mozart & the Whale." Lacking a distrib, pic faces an uphill struggle commercially that could be aided by a promo push from star Josh Hartnett.

Material that easily could have been turned into cringe-inducing TV movie sap has been handled with reasonable intelligence and authenticity in “Mozart & the Whale.” This low-budget love story between two emotionally stunted young people with Asperger’s Syndrome doesn’t have the production sheen or star power of screenwriter Ron Bass’ “Rain Man,” but it’s less cloying and contrived. Lacking a distrib, pic faces an uphill struggle commercially that could be aided by a promo push from star Josh Hartnett, who should be proud to draw attention to his first screen performance that shows he has some acting chops.

Shot two years ago in Spokane, Wash., this marks the first American feature by Norwegian theater vet Petter Naess, whose 2001 fest hit “Elling” was Oscar-nominated. Helmer has an obvious knack with actors, as he trains dramatic focus on the problems of the two wildly different leading characters while sympathetically orchestrating a convincing ensemble of variously afflicted people who are never allowed to lapse into aimless affectation.

“Fictional story based on true events” was inspired by Jerry Newport, who reportedly wasn’t aware he had a form of autism until he saw “Rain Man” and subsequently organized support groups around the country. Hartnett’s character Donald is a taxi driver with a phenomenal talent for numbers who has assembled a support group where members can be themselves without outside pressure.

From the first, there is a refreshing absence of special pleading or under-the-microscope examination in Naess’ approach; the characters are what they are — cantankerous, repressed, deluded and so on. Their common trait, other than loneliness, is extreme mental preoccupation that contributes to difficulty dealing with the outside world or other individuals; they often don’t look people in the eye (especially true of Donald) or respond to questions, are consumed with statistics or esoteric knowledge, and are into their own heads to an extent that makes them natural loners unlikely to make meaningful connections with others.

Which sets up the central challenge, when gorgeous fireball Isabelle (Radha Mitchell) turns up to check out the group. Direct where Donald is evasive and kinetic while he is laid back, Isabelle would seem to have a brain firing on triple the normal number of synapses; she says what’s on her mind, is impulsively creative and seems, at first, like your everyday unpredictable, semi-flakey hyperneurotic.

Under the circumstances, it’s up to Isabelle to make the first move, which she does at a Halloween party at which she’s adorably dolled up like Wolfgang Amadeus and Donald’s rather less flatteringly accoutered as a whale. When he nervously brings her to the impossibly cluttered apartment he shares with an array of uncaged birds, Isabelle announces in her typically forthright manner, “This is about sex,” an approach a tad too direct for poor Donald.

Core of the movie, which flirts with cutesiness on occasion, deals with how the two do and don’t manage to sort out their relationship. Although Donald flips out when Isabelle takes it upon herself to clean up his apartment, Isabelle’s superior ability to handle real-life challenges enables her to find a house they can share as well as to land Donald a good job in statistics at the local university.

However, the tiniest slight unhinges Isabelle, creating legitimate doubt as to whether she, more than Donald, can ever handle a permanent relationship. Wrap-up arrives abruptly and feels somewhat unearned, given that so much of what precedes it has been examined in such detail.

Mitchell socks over her role as a dynamo whose emotional insecurity is buried under a fabulously attractive exterior; by virtue of her character’s assertiveness, she dominates the screen. But Hartnett’s performance as an awkward and retiring soul is at least equally closely observed, as the actor makes quite touching the desires that are so painful for Donald to act upon.

Supporting turns by often familiar thesps ring true, with John Carroll Lynch getting the most screen time as a seemingly belligerent man who helps the romance along.

Vidshot feature looks pretty good on the bigscreen, although production values are basic. Some of the pop tune music choices are too mainstream perky compared with the otherwise delicate handling of the material.

Mozart & The Whale

Production

A Millenium Films presentation of a Robert Lawrence production for Equity Pictures Medienfonds. (International sales: Nu Image, Los Angeles.) Produced by Lawrence, Ron Bass, Boaz Davidson, Frank DeMartini, James Acheson. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Josef Lautenschlager, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Gerd Koechlin, Manfred Heid. Co-producer, Lati Crobman. Directed by Petter Naess. Screenplay, Ron Bass.

Crew

Camea (color, Betacam), Svein Krovel; editors, Miklos Wright, Lisa Zeno Churgin; music, Deborah Lurie; music supervisor, Ashley Miller; production designer, Gary Steele; costume designer, Ha Nguyen; sound (Dolby), Nigel Elliot; supervising sound editor, Jonathan Miller; assistant director, Marc Dahlstrom; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (American Independent), Feb. 4, 2006. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Donald - Josh Hartnett Isabella - Radha Mitchell Wallace - Gary Cole Janice - Sheila Kelley Bronwin - Erica Leerhsen Gregory - John Carroll Lynch Roger - Nate Mooney Gracie - Rusty Schwimmer Blume - Robert Wisdom Skeets - Allen Evangelista

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