If you haven't had the misfortune of witnessing Ethan Hawke's other directorial effort, 2001's "Chelsea Walls," then I envy you. Hawke is an actor's director, if that term still applies these days, but it's not an identity based in vocational respect, it's one of unreal permission. "The Hottest State" is Hawke's second shot at isolating the wounds of the selfish heart, and it's every bit as tedious and agonizingly self-absorbed as you might have expected.
William Harding (Mark Webber) is a frustrated aspiring actor fresh from the wide open spaces of Texas, now living in the artist bohemia of New York City. One night at a bar, he meets Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a singer with severe relationship scars. The two hit it off and embark on a sexually-charged connection, which offers both personalities some comfort and an excuse to bathe with their demons. When Sarah breaks up with William, it sends him into a fit of depression, dredging up a past with combative parents (Hawke and a wonderful Laura Linney) and ex-girlfriends (Michelle Williams) he doesn't want to confront.
Adapting his own 1996 Gen X bible for the screen, I suppose it's safe to say that the only person who could do justice to the cinematic incarnation of the "Hottest State" would be Hawke himself. Who else could extract the tortured soul machinations of the story than the man who dreamed up the whole damned enterprise in the first place?
"State" is about that elusive warmth of relationship reassurance and how devastating the feeling becomes when the opposite sex (not to mention the world itself) lacks that perfection. It's a celebration of "in the moment" method acting coming from Hawke, who, as a performer himself, never met a miscalculated reaction he didn't like. As a director, Hawke bows down to his actors, giving them free reign to take the material anywhere they choose; an acting experiment that soon grinds down to chaos in a hurry. Listen, if you're not predisposed to untrained method actors exploiting their worst instincts, "State" is going to feel like a thunderstorm of hot razor blades raining down on your soft pink senses from frame one.
Of course, if Hawke cast with a little more bravery, the thematic pull of "State" would've been far more emotionally debilitating. Instead, we're stuck with Mark Webber, a young actor of extremely limited means who tramples over "State" like a runaway elephant. Portraying an incompetent thespian, Webber takes the job a little too seriously, failing to offer any emotional truth or character insight, more concerned with his hipster shirtless posing and aural idiosyncrasies. The actor is awful here, in a way that bends time and makes the film feel as though it's going backwards; he's relentless in his overcompensation and angry indication, making Moreno's broken English performance a softly-rendered miracle this film doesn't deserve.
Want a standard issue troubled childhood, screaming fits in the middle of the street (quoting "Romeo and Juliet" no less), New York bohemia malarkey, a profusion of soundtrack cuts that never pause, and extended, distant acting school looks as if to expresses longing and regret? Boy, is "State" ever the film for you. Hawke is so concerned with preserving the malaise of the piece he somehow misses that these characters are indescribably atrocious, uninteresting personalities, and no amount of indie-film cred is going to make two hours with this continuous exhibition of noxious acting bells and whistles digest any less violently.
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