"Stay the Same Never Change," controversial video artist Laurel Nakadate's feature debut, probes the hollowness of Middle America via sensual depiction of assorted lonely teenage girls desperately seeking a way out -- or in.

Hovering somewhere between Todd Solondz and Harmony Korine, “Stay the Same Never Change,” controversial video artist Laurel Nakadate’s feature debut, probes the hollowness of Middle America via sensual depiction of assorted lonely teenage girls desperately seeking a way out — or in. Loosely composed as a succession of vignettes by Nakadate, but enacted with disaffected flatness by nubile nonprofessionals in their own Kansas City homes, the provocative pic, often disturbingly absorbing from moment to moment, registers as considerably less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, Nakadate’s studies in sexually charged alienation could build sufficient fest mystique to find niche play.

The people in Nakadate’s abstract, long-take tableaux come off less as characters than as physical beings around which are clustered people and/or objects that define them. The mother of one girl is surrounded by a yoga instructor, a therapist, a couple of exterminators and a one-man band. For the clueless teens who command less space and fewer resources, Nakadate rigs up motley paradigms culled from pop culture: A girl dons a prom dress for an imaginary wedding night with a stand-in teddy bear, while a teen with a sick father writes to ask Oprah Winfrey to adopt her, posed against a wall collage of photo cutouts pairing herself with the big O.

Not all of Nakadate’s ideas pan out: An angry girl rolling around in a clunky Incredible Hulk costume proves a nonstarter. But the pic gets amazing interactive mileage out of a portable boyfriend substitute: a homemade, lifesize stuffed dummy of a muscular lover.

In violating the dreaming space of the girls’ near-identical bedrooms, making public what is only privately indulged in, Nakadate (as in many of her video installations) deliberately raises questions of voyeurism. One girl’s repeated, mindless sliding up and down the hood of a car becomes, because of a nearby peeping Tom, an odd piece of performance art.

Outside the bedroom, actions tend toward the solipsistic, if not the downright enigmatic. A teen swimming with two guys asks them to drown her. Several males encircle a girl in the deep woods for some unseen ritual; the fitful superimposition of porn-style black bars over certain men’s eyes furthers the mystery.

In Nakadate’s abstract constructs, Kansas City serves as a totally deserted, post-apocalyptic stage. Parents exist only if they form part of a girl’s nexus, and images on television reflect the characters’ obsessions. Nothing of what the girls’ self-absorption overlooks is permitted to enter the frame. Even the favored instrument of teen interaction, the Internet, is strangely absent. In many ways, Nakadate’s camera mediates that zone between private and public spheres increasingly fudged in cyberspace.

Stay the Same Never Change

Production

A Laurel Nakadate production. Directed, written by Laurel Nakadate.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Nakadate; editors, Nakadate, Elise Irving, Owen Ashworth; music, Ashworth; sound, Irving, Cyan Meeks, Nakadate. Reviewed at Walter Reade Theater, New York, March 3, 2009. (In New Directors/New Films, New York; Sundance Film Festival -- New Frontier.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Julie Potratz, Mary Nichols, Tate Buck, Paige Sanders, Cyan Meeks, Emily Boullear, Dirk Cowen, Marcia Trayford.

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