The title is something of a misnomer, since most of "Bangkok" actually takes place elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But never mind: By any name, Colin Drobnis' understated pic about Americans adrift in Cambodia is an unassumingly engaging and sharply observed drama spiced with tasty nuggets of fish-out-of-water humor.

The title is something of a misnomer, since most of “Bangkok” actually takes place elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But never mind: By any name, Colin Drobnis’ understated pic about Americans adrift in Cambodia is an unassumingly engaging and sharply observed drama spiced with tasty nuggets of fish-out-of-water humor. Working from his own script, Drobnis neatly balances elements of picaresque road movies and coming-of-age scenarios while focusing on three men who come to rely on each other while they are strangers in a strange land. Pic may embark on a limited theatrical run once it completes its fest-circuit journey.

Newly dismissed from the Army after seven years of screw-ups and AWOL misadventures, chronically discontent Paul Harding (Abel Johnson) becomes suddenly focused and proactive after making a surprising discovery about his long-deceased father. All his life, he’d been told that his dad died in Vietnam. But declassified documents reveal the elder Harding was officially listed as MIA while on a secret mission in Cambodia.

Eager to learn the truth — because he likely has nothing else to do — Paul impulsively purchases a ticket to fly from his Georgia home to Thailand. From there, he hopes to travel by train to Cambodia to find the precise spot where, decades earlier, his father’s military aircraft reportedly crash-landed.

The journey gets off to a bumpy start in Bangkok, where Paul is robbed by Reuben (Daniel Miller), a balding, bearish, Bible-quoting pickpocket. Naive yet resourceful, the ex-solider tracks down the thief and retrieves his wallet.

No hard feelings, though: When the two men meet again on a train bound for Phnom Penh, they enjoy each other’s company during a long night of beer-drinking and story-swapping. On the same train, Paul also meets Guy (Aaron Smith), a lonely, nerdy post-grad from Wisconsin.

Moving at an unhurried pace without ever seeming unduly discursive, “Bangkok” casts a bemused but sympathetic eye as the three men gradually form the kind of acquaintanceship possible among strangers only while they are traveling abroad. Paul’s search to discover exactly what fate befell his father provides some semblance of narrative propulsion. For the most part, though, episodic pic establishes a storyline through the methodical accruement of exotic details and spirited exchanges among the mismatched traveling companions.

Drobnis — heretofore best known as an f/x digital artist on “Godzilla,” “Spider-Man” and other big-ticket productions — includes encounters with culinary oddities and massage-parlor cuties, but infuses such conventional scenes with the same vitality, urgency and rude comedy that he brings to a skillfully sustained sequence in which the guys discover they are motorcycling through an abandoned minefield.

The three lead thesps turn in such well-rounded performances that the aud is left wanting to know even more about their characters. (Miller’s Reuben provocatively suggests a long history of personal failure during latenight phone calls back to the U.S.) Indeed, these guys make for very welcome companions for an uncommonly satisfying road trip.

Impressive production values indicate a limited budget was spent shrewdly and imaginatively during location shooting in Thailand, Cambodia and Japan.

Bangkok

Production

A World Filmed Entertainment production. Produced by Colin Drobnis, Ilya Lyudmirsky, Daniel Miller, Aaron Smith. Directed, written by Colin Drobnis.

Crew

Camera (color), Ilya Lyudmirsky; editor, John Penmar; production designer, Isabelle Clark; costume designer, Izzy Orthnot; sound, Arnie Bernold; assistant director, Suriyun Santitharangkun. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 19, 2007. (At Slamdance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Paul Harding - Abel Johnson Reuben - Daniel Miller Guy - Aaron Smith Capt. Roth - Aaron Nash
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