Adapted by actor-helmer Ethan Hawke from his own novel of the same name, “The Hottest State” takes a good deal of time to heat up and fails to generate much more than a lukewarm empathy for its petulant main characters. Follow-up to Hawke’s feature helming debut, “Chelsea Walls,” accompanies a Gotham-based young actor down the road to heartbreak when he’s dumped by his singer g.f. Patchy lead perfs and mannered helming subtract value from pic’s tangible plus points (solid supporting turns, pleasant score). Mixed reception on Venice’s Lido forecasts mild to cool B.O. weather in most states.
Core story centers round relationship between 20-year-old aspiring thesp William Harding (Mark Webber, a support in “Broken Flowers”) and wannabe thrush Sara Garcia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, star of “Maria Full of Grace”), who’s just arrived in New York City. The two meet in a downtown bar, and within days she’s moving into his apartment (which is infeasibly large for someone with supposedly little coin).
After a prickly meeting with her mother (Sonia Braga, in tastily tart form), they head off for a weeklong bed session in Mexico City, where they nearly get married. Post-vacation, it’s all downhill once Sara decides she’d rather not have a boyfriend at all.
Dialogue in early scenes of love’s young dream has a semi-improvised feel, for example when William and Sara play-act out, prophetically as it happens, how they will split up. Tone is reminiscent of Hawke’s own sweet duets with Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” which Richard Linklater (who has a small cameo here) helmed, only the perfs here feel stiffer and more self-conscious.
The effect may have been intentional, but suspicions remain that Moreno in particular is floundering with a character who never amounts to more than a few rough facets: She’s a Latina, from a wealthy Connecticut background, has been hurt by a bad breakup, and is supposedly “smart,” although her intelligence is more insisted on than demonstrated.
Webber fares better and shows a genuine flare for comedy in a wince-inducing scene where his character repeatedly calls Sara’s answering machine to leave progressively more desperate and rambling messages.
In press notes for pic, helmer Hawke hints at autobiographical parallels between himself and William. Like Hawke, William hails from Texas, the hottest state of the title, which is the setting for an opening flashback showing how William’s parents, Vince and Jesse (played as teens by Daniel Ross and Anne Clarke), first met.
The relevance of this just glimpsed backstory only gradually becomes clear near the pic’s end, as the writer-helmer strains to make his big point, which feels like a therapy-learned life lesson: that William’s abandonment by his father when he was 8 contributed to his later obsessive behavior.
Climactic scene in which William confronts his dad (played now as an adult by Hawke) scrapes together genuine poignancy in an otherwise skittishly shot sequence. Second hour of pic reps the stronger half by some stretch, with good work contributed from Laura Linney as William’s acerbic, frustrated mother and from Michelle Williams, vivid and all-too briefly seen, as one of William’s ex-lovers.
Pushing hard to achieve some kind of lyricism the plot itself doesn’t ever quite muster, Hawke pulls assorted tricks out of the box, including slo-mo sequences and generally stylized camerawork courtesy of d.p. Christopher Norr, abrupt flashbacks and too much voiceover work. When Hawke relaxes and gets his thesps in a comfortable place, pic flares brightly into life, but the judders may be too frequent to generate strong word of mouth.
Work by tech departments leaves something to be desired. Lensing, by accident or misconceived design, is often underlit, and noise mix on print caught sounded muddy, with key lines of dialogue occasionally drowned out by Jesse Harris’ pervasive, but nevertheless tuneful and jaunty, jazz-inflected score.