Small-town New England tensions boil over in “The Undeserved,” a somewhat overloaded yet impressive feature debut by writer-helmer Brad Coley that’s a sufficiently edgy update of “Peyton Place”-style ensemble melodramatics. The 16mm lensing and lack of marquee names won’t encourage theatrical exposure. Still, this engrossing pic is a natural for small-screen buyers.
Athens, Vt. (state’s Bellow Falls is the actual location), houses Sperry Rock School, a progressive institution where K-through-12-graders are encouraged to create their own curriculum by the hippie-ish teachers who’ve sired some of them. Science prodigy Charlie (James Martinez) wins a full scholarship to his first-choice college, but his g.f. Joy (Autumn Dornfeld) disappears entirely after dropping out — for reasons Charlie discovers much later — while punky best friend Vernal (Paul Sado) seems perversely determined to screw up his own future. Cutting back and forth over a year’s course, script paints a characterful portrait of the town’s redneck vs. pious-liberal, adult vs. youth populace in a myriad complex of conflicts. Too many issues (what, incest again?) and strands are piled on by a violent climax, but convincing perfs, psychology and atmosphere keep the decently crafted pic quite compelling.