Splinterheads work the midway, tasked with parting suckers from their cash when a carnival comes to town. In the movie “Splinterheads,” however, it’s the other way around, with a lovestruck townie trying to steal the girl from a traveling fair. Writer-director Brant Sersen’s amiable indie comedy — even less edgy than Greg Mottola’s theme-park-set “Adventureland” — attempts to compensate for its too-familiar romantic setup by defining its characters through idiosyncratic hobbies and traits. A non-starter on the fest circuit, “Splinterheads” will likely be overlooked in limited release as well.
As played by newcomer Thomas Middleditch, who’s performed with the Improvised Shakespeare Company and several other noteworthy comedy troupes, Justin Frost belongs to the same category of listless, middle-class, white-guy characters as Napoleon Dynamite. He lives at home with his single mom (Lea Thompson), practices amateur karate in his spare time and drives an old Toyota he insists on calling his “sports car” — qualities that don’t go particularly far with an edgy girl like Galaxy (Rachael Taylor, “Transformers”).
Nevertheless, Galaxy feigns interest when they first meet, showing just enough cleavage to con Justin out of 60 bucks in a gas station scam. When Justin sees her again, she’s working the dunking booth at the fair, a two-bit operation just exciting enough to lure Justin and his randy best friend, Wayne Chung (Jason Rogel), after a lame day mowing lawns.
For a character in his mid-20s, Justin behaves more like a junior high teen: He’s a bit of a spazz, and lacking in ambition, interests and backbone. He’s easily intimidated by Galaxy’s carny boyfriend (Dean Winters), as well as the town police officer (Christopher McDonald) who used to date his mom. By the third time he and Galaxy cross paths, during a geocaching hunt for hidden treasure, he is thoroughly smitten, yet virtually incapable of loosening up.
While Justin seems to be coming to terms with his inner dork, Middleditch has clearly embraced his own. The actor looks like a young Daniel Stern, with his sleepy eyes and sideways smirk, and it’s not hard to imagine Galaxy would find his awkwardness endearing. At the very least, he seems more sensitive than her cartoonish bully of a boyfriend.
Still, their time together feels mostly pro forma. Sersen (“Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story”) uses the old trick of dropping out the dialogue as the two characters laugh and chat, but instead of condensing several dates into a standard falling-in-love montage, he cuts together multiple shots from a single, long drive, which conveys little more than how long it takes to reach their destination.
Side characters introduced as comic relief — including a self-important magician (Jason Mantzoukas) and Justin’s older-than-dirt granddad (Edmund Lyndeck) — add flair to what feels like a very small town, but get in the way during the pic’s sloppy climax. Still, Sersen has the right instincts for comedy, and with a few clumsy exceptions, his work is polished enough to pass for pro. Red-shot footage looks sharp.