Hottest State, The: Ethan Hawks’ Second Directing Effort (after Chelsea Walls)

Toronto Film Fest 2006–Ethan Hawkes second feature The Hottest State, an adaptation of his own autobiographical first novel, is a moody, quiet memory piece about love and heartbreak that’s more interesting and accomplished than the vanity project such material would suggest.

The film marks a significant leap forward from Chelsea Walls, the actors first feature, which told interconnected vignettes about a group of lost souls living in the artists enclave at the Chelsea Hotel in New York Citys Greenwich Village. That film featured some strong performances, but the storytelling was so diffuse, and the aesthetically dour, digital video look so soft and bleary, that it was a work of some isolated powerful moments rather than a sustained narrative with cumulative shape.

The new film has much more impressive production values (Christopher Norrs cinematography is strong), excellent score (by Jesse Harris), more emotionally detailed story, and some nicely sculpted performances that surmount the pretentiousness of the writing. Its still too precious by half, though Hawke at least has found time to trust his actors and the material, resulting in a much more confident and precise work.

Structurally, most of the film is related in flashback, summoning the wounded, tough memories of William Harding (Mark Webber), 21-year-old actor. Traveling by train across an evocative Southwest American landscape, William resurrects his pursuit of Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno, the Oscar-nominated performer of Maria Full of Grace). Their story of ecstasy and abandon is contrasted with the funny, tender, broken relationship of his own parents, and his fathers abandoning the family when he was a young boy.

Hawke makes it explicit in the opening scene that his primary impulse is telling, relating, even if necessary inventing stories. Film begins with William recounting the story of how his attractive, teen-aged parents met in Fort Worth, Texas. I wonder if sex was easier in Texas than New York, William ponders. At a hipster bar he frequents, William immediately zeroes in on Sara, a quietly ambitious singer who has just arrived from Connecticut.

Williams a classic performer, all nervous energy and sexual aggression. Saras recessive and ambiguous, offering just enough of herself to maintain his interest. As the camera floats and dances around them, walking under a brilliant New York ink black night, the air cutting like a knife, their bodies pressed together and they kiss. It is the start of their hesitant, playful push-and-pull relationship. Hawke captures well the inchoate rhythms of young people, their need for love and companionship balanced against a desire for individual expression and emotional solitude.

Thematically, the movie suggests a continuation of ideas and feelings from Hawkes exquisite collaboration with filmmaker Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Linklater has a small part in The Hottest State, playing a bar hipster who tells a story about a John Wayne enthusiast.

The Hottest State is at its best in the quieter, looser, more observant moments that break down the fractured social behavior and sexual discourse that pass between men and women. The excellent Michelle Williams plays Samantha, Williams old flame, now hovering around the action, ready to provide comfort and support to William, or provide evidence of his sexual allure that unnerves Sara.

Told entirely from Williams subjective POV, the story is problematic in how it negates a fuller, more complicated portrait of Sara. Saras graceful and ethereal, a gifted singer, though her needs shift during the course of her relationship. William clearly requires both attention and authenticity. A funny, telling moment of the two visiting Saras mother (played by Sonia Braga) in Connecticut offers character detail, suggesting Saras failed relationship and her depression, and providing a context for her recurring detachment from William.

The movie is less secure in the middle passages. Hawke establishes the tentative, hesitant contours of their relationship. Following a hallucinatory six-day trip to Mexico that ratchets up the intensity of the relationship, Sara turns pensive and withholding emotionally. She becomes increasingly remote, her behavior driving William to his own rambling, desperate and irrational behavior. I came to New York to be free, ” she says, “I dont want a boyfriend.”

As Williams mood turns ugly, his behavior less impressive, he stalks her, standing out of her window at night, quoting passages from Romeo and Juliet. In the film’s most wounding scene, William makes a succession of phone calls, his tone turning more desperate and psychotic.

Thankfully, Hawke recovers in the third stage of the movie, in which he fluidly develops a parallel story of how Williams bruised memories of his parents break up now mirrors his profound sense of loss and failure in his own broken relationship with Sara. Like a Sam Shepard play (of which Hawke has appeared in many), The Hottest State becomes a metaphoric search for the absent or estranged father. Hawke plays Williams father as an older man. Mention must also be paid to Laura Linney, delivering a blistering, acerbic turn as Williams mother. Expertly, she allows an edge and volatility, a female sensibility, the move desperately needs.

Problem is, the movies conception of Sara is frustrating. Since Moreno is an extraordinary young actress, who projects vulnerability and toughness, the movies major failure is denying her a portrait. By the end, its too punishing and punitive. She functions too easily as Williams object of lust, a fantasy writ large, and her rebellion against his possessiveness is entirely understandable.

A rising young performer due to his strong work in Todd Solondz Storytelling and Jim Jarmuschs Broken Flowers, Webber is an engaging, precise actor who excites with his twisted body language, fears, ambitions, and how it all relates to a larger discussion of his damaged masculinity.

Like his first feature, Hawkes major weakness here is his writing. As the movies repeated allusions to Tennessee Williams illustrate, Hawke is drawn too easily to poetic language and metaphor. Hes more natural and fluid with the raw twisted and confused emotions. He is at his most direct and colloquial expressing what is never said, or what men and women refuse to talk about.

That said, The Hottest State is a clear improvement, an indication that Hawke has taken the stinging criticism of Chelsea Walls to heart, and is determined to prove himself an able listener.

Written by Patrick McGavin