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Director John Polson trips over his softly, softly approach to the serial-killer genre in "Tenderness."

With: Sophie Traub, Jon Foster, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern, Alexis Dziena, Arija Bareikis, Michael Kelly.

U.S.-based Aussie helmer John Polson trips over his softly, softly approach to the serial-killer genre in “Tenderness.” One-time thesp won Antipodean fame founding the funky Sydney short-film event Tropfest, but his transition to directing — “Siam Sunset,” “Swimfan,” “Hide and Seek” — has yielded mixed results. Based on an intriguing novel, and blessed with strong young leads and subsidiary support from Laura Dern and (Polson’s longtime buddy) Russell Crowe, “Tenderness” initially tantalizes but fails to deliver. Released in Oz in late April, the pic will struggle before collapsing into the ancillary market.

Yarn confidently and succinctly introduces pretty but tragically immature 15-year-old Lori Cranston (Sophie Traub), who goes through life zombie-like, as if she had “victim” tattooed on her forehead. At work, she’s sexually harassed, and at home, the new b.f. (Michael Kelly) of her mother (Arija Bareikis) sneaks into the bathroom when she showers.

However, the teen suddenly comes to life when she hears juvenile murder convict and now committed Baptist Eric Komenko (Jon Foster) will be released with a clean slate, on his 18th birthday, into the custody of his aunt Teresa (Dern) in Buffalo, N.Y.

Also fired up by Eric’s impending release is sad-sack “semi-retired” cop Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe), who pays Eric a visit in juvenile detention to tell him he believes the kid is a psychopath and will kill again. The day before Eric is set free, he catches sight of comely fellow prisoner Maria (Alexis Dziena), who briefly crosses the facility’s sexual segregation line. Maria smuggles him a note suggesting they hook up on the outside.

The first chance he gets, Eric borrows his aunt’s car and heads for a rendezvous with Maria in Albany. But he’s shocked to find Lori has stowed away in the station wagon’s backseat. Script’s sleight-of-hand cleverly implies that Lori and Eric already know each other well, though the truth is somewhat different.

Yarn settles into a low-key road movie that reveals the origins of Lori’s preoccupation with Eric and almost absentmindedly toys with the possibility that Eric will kill either Lori or Maria.

With no real life of his own, Cristofuoro follows Eric’s trail. Via a couple of overly coincidental, and increasingly absurd, near-meetings, the cop is disturbed to discover his quarry is not traveling alone. What began as an atmospheric drama withers into a series of story tics and gimmicks that relies too heavily on Jonathan Goldsmith’s subtly disturbing score. A climactic twist is poorly realized and robs the pic of a last chance to distinguish itself before a predictable denouement.

Lensing by Clint Eastwood regular Tom Stern offers an earthy indie look. However, in tandem with Polson’s bland direction, the effect tends to work against the story’s better qualities.

Crowe’s supporting role is uncharacteristically subdued, and pleases for being more “Insider”-ish than “Gladiator”-ial. However, the pic belongs to the featured younger actors. Traub, who played the young Nicole Kidman in “The Interpreter,” offers a winning combo of guile and naivete. Likewise, tube thesp Foster (“Windfall,” “Life as We Know It”) adeptly portrays Eric’s indecisiveness, maintaining suspense, against the odds, about his intentions.

For the record, the copyright date on the end titles is 2007.

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Production: A Lionsgate Australia (in Australia) release of a GreeneStreet Films, iDeal Partners, Hanson-Allen presentation of a GreeneStreet Films, Turtleback production. (International sales: GreeneStreet Films Intl., New York.) Produced by Howard Meltzer, John Penotti, Charles Randolph. Executive producers, John Allen, Jana Edelbaum, Scott Hanson, Fisher Stevens, Tim Williams. Co-producer, Sam Hoffman. Directed by John Polson. Screenplay, Emil Stern, based on the novel by Robert Cormeir.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Tom Stern; editors, Lisa Zeno Churgin, Andrew Marcus, Beatrice Sisul; music, Jonathan Goldsmith; production designer, Mark Friedberg; art director, Peter Rogness; sound (Dolby Digital), Benjamin Cheah. Reviewed at Cinema 4, Hoyts Mandarin Center, Sydney, April 30, 2009. Running time: 100 MIN.

With: With: Sophie Traub, Jon Foster, Russell Crowe, Laura Dern, Alexis Dziena, Arija Bareikis, Michael Kelly.

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