"Zerophilia," opening on the art-film circuit, should really be playing to raucous crowds at the drive-in or in late-night rotation on pay cable. Part horror movie, part randy teen sex farce, pic takes the premise that some organisms are capable of mutating gender to suit their surroundings. Though pic will likely have trouble finding auds, it could conceivably spawn an entire genre of imitators.

“Zerophilia,” opening on the art-film circuit, should really be playing to raucous crowds at the drive-in or in late-night rotation on pay cable. Part horror movie, part randy teen sex farce, pic takes the premise that some organisms are capable of mutating gender to suit their surroundings and extends it to an Oregon undergrad whose extra chromosome allows him to alternate between male and female. Martin Curland’s endearing debut delivers a ripe conceit in such gendermorphic times, and though pic will likely have trouble finding auds, it could conceivably spawn an entire genre of imitators.

Tone-setting credit sequence features a CG tadpole swimming under a glowing moon. It is easily mistaken for the union of sperm and egg, until the resulting embryo is revealed to be a frog.

That pseudoscientific sense of humor echoes through entire pic, right up to final “Departed”-style gag in which a frog leaps into frame. Though the crazy “what if” concept seems to have been extrapolated from a college biology lecture, it ably supports all manner of contempo sexual identity issues.

During a camping trip, Luke (Taylor Handley) loses his virginity to a never-seen Kelly LeBrock — and unwittingly awakens his dormant Z chromosome. Since the Zerophiliac condition doesn’t actually exist as described, Curland defines it as he sees fit: After having sex for the first time, a “Z” enters the “morphescent” phase in which he/she can alternate freely between genders. Only by coupling with another Z does the individual cement his/her identity.

Pic does a clumsy job of explaining all the loopholes of Zerophilia. But then Bela Lugosi’s seminal 1932 “White Zombie” failed to establish most of the crucial zombie-genre details, and that didn’t stop George Romero and others from recognizing the creatures’ allegorical potential in subsequent pics.

Back in town, Luke begins to experience hot flashes. During a date with new-girl-in-town Michelle (Rebecca Mozo), a woozy Luke excuses himself from the table and stumbles out the back door, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal … a fully developed set of breasts.

Knocked between the legs with a pool ball, he’s similarly horrified to feel no pain. And how to explain the fact that his female self, Luca (Marieh Delfino), seems to prefer Michelle’s hottie brother Max (Kyle Schmid)?

Trading on such puberty fears, “Zerophilia” plays like a throwback to such transformative adolescent anxiety romps as “Teen Wolf” and “Just One of the Guys,” this time aiming at a slightly less innocent crowd. Unrated pic features enough nudity to entice the frat-house set, while putting it out of the reach of slumber-party auds.

Amid deliberately campy situations and sophomoric jokes, “Zerophilia” offers a disarmingly sweet lesson about learning to identify with the opposite gender. Kudos to casting directors Robyn Knoll and Jean Scoccimarro for populating the cast with enough androgynous-looking actors to essay not only the dual parts of Luke/Luca but also pic’s other “surprise” Zerophiliacs.

Project looks polished by indie standards, boasting an upbeat soundtrack of original songs by MiChel Fusco.

Zerophilia

Production

A Microangelo Entertainment release of a Scrambled Eggs Prods. and Different by Design production. Produced by Alan Grossbard, Greg Lanesey, Matt Radecki, Jay Whitney Brown, Martin Curland. Directed, written by Martin Curland.

Crew

Camera (color), Graham Futerfas; editor, John Randle; music, Kevin McDaniels; production designer, Kenn Coplan; set decorator, Lia Roldan; costume designer, Annie Rocchio; sound, Brian Sorbo; visual effects supervisor, Darren Fanton; associate producers, Robert Shober, David Curland, Michael V. Bales; assistant director, Jim Whitworth; casting, Robyn Knoll, Jean Scoccimarro; additional casting, Daniel Portolan. Reviewed at Laemmle Sunset 5, Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2006. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Luke - Taylor Handley Keenan - Dustin Seavey Janine - Alison Folland Max - Kyle Schmid Michelle - Rebecca Mozo Sydney - Gina Bellman Luca - Marieh Delfino
With: Kelly LeBrock, Adam Zolotin, Chris Meyer, Rick Stear.
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