Four lesbians approaching middle age conspire to cover up a murder.

Four lesbians approaching middle age conspire to cover up a murder in the self-regarding but watchable “The Owls.” With its cocktail of drama and docu elements, and a slight whiff of the women’s studies seminar room about it, the pic harks back to writer-helmer Cheryl Dunye’s first feature, “The Watermelon Woman,” marking a return to roots after her mixed fortunes in mainstream features. Starved of product by and about themselves, Sapphic-minded auds are likely to find “The Owls” a hoot, especially in supportive fest environments, but the pic won’t fly far beyond ultra-niche circuits.

Dialogue-disclosed backstory explains that in the 1990s, self-centered alcoholic Iris (Guinevere Turner), tough-talking MJ (V.S. Brodie), and Brit Lily (Lisa Gornick) were all in a successful rock band together that broke up years ago.

A year before the pic’s main contempo action starts, Iris and MJ threw a drug-fueled party at their place, inviting over neighbors Lily and her current g.f., Carol (played by helmer Dunye). Plastered, Iris made out with Cricket (Deak Ergenikos), a much younger woman. A fight broke out, and although details are hazy until an eventual flashback reveals all, it seems Cricket was killed and the four friends buried her body.

A year on, Iris comes back to town from a long absence to sell the house she shares with MJ. The two bicker constantly while Iris gets spooked by the posters all over town seeking info about Cricket’s disappearance. Superficially loved-up Lily and Carol have been trying for a baby, although Lily is ambivalent about both the relationship and motherhood.

One night, a tall, dark stranger arrives: Skye (Skyler Cooper), a young, muscle-bound androgyne who says she’s looking for absent friends. Happy to help a sister out, Carol (who, like Skye, is of African descent) lets her stay with her and Lily, but it soon becomes clear Skye is actually looking for Cricket.

Although the core quartet’s sniping and bitching sort of works as social comedy without many laughs, the plot’s thriller strand entirely fails to convince. As if aware of a need to juice things up intellectually, Dunye and Co. chop in footage of the thesps (speaking both in character and as their real selves) along with some of the pic’s behind-the-camera crew talking about what they think of labels like “butch” and “femme,” and the generation-gap between younger lesbians and “OWLs,” an acronym for “Older Wiser Lesbians,” hence the title. The docu elements are actually more interesting than the drama, which sputters to an abrupt, who-cares-anyway halt.

At least it’s good to see generally underused thesp Turner (who first broke out in the 1994 lesbian cinema classic “Go Fish”) having fun with her turn as catty slut Iris. The rest of the cast, especially Dunye and charismatic youngsters Cooper and Ergenikos, are appealing.

Uninspiring craft contributions seem to insist that a low budget reps some kind of virtue.

The Owls

Production

A Parliament Film Collective presentation. (International sales: the Film Collaborative, Los Angeles.) Produced by Cheryl Dunye, Candi Guterres, Ernesto M. Foronda, Alexandra Juhasz, Agusta Einarsdottir, Molly Sturdevant. Directed by Cheryl Dunye. Screenplay, Dunye, Sarah Schulman.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Alison Kelly; editor, Agusta Einarsdottir; music, Ysanne Spevack; music supervisor, Ernesto M. Foronda; production designer, Candi Guterres; costume designer, Gersha Phillips; sound, Campbell. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 9, 2009. Running time: 65 MIN.

With

Cheryl Dunye, Lisa Gornick, Guinevere Turner, V.S. Brodie, Skyler Cooper, Deak Ergenikos.

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