Actor-turned-filmmaker Ethan Hawke has made a sophomore feature, “The Hottest State,” and it’s an emotionally true but a dramatically dry journey through the torrid zone. For all the purported swelter, there’s little heat coming from the screen as a love affair erupts, crescendos, dies and wreaks havoc on the sanity of the movie’s heartbroken protagonist.
Crisper than Hawke’s earlier-directed “Chelsea Walls,” but suffering from a similar oomph deficiency, the drama, adapted by Hawke from his novel, is a plot-thin, predicament-thick chronicle of a relationship.
William (Mark Webber), an intense 20-year-old actor living in Big Apple bohemia, and Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a commitment-wary singer-songwriter, become passionately involved, but, after their sex-charged vacation in Mexico, Sara decides she doesn’t want a boyfriend. Devastated, William aggressively and obsessively continues to pursue Sara. Additionally, William travels to his home state of Texas to confront his father, who, long ago, abandoned him.
In depicting the workings of human connection, Hawke, working in neo-Beattones, gets lots right. His portrayal of first love and romantic obsession, as demonstrated by William with the immaturity and intensity you’d expect from a 20-year-old, is impressively real. A passage in which lovesick William compulsively leaves a string of phone messages for Sara, each more desperate than the last, is terrifically on-target in this regard.
Meanwhile, Hawke’s talky presentation of the relationship’s early phase — in which the lovers lightheartedly (and prophetically, it turns out) envision their eventual breakup — unfolds with a naturalness recalling Hawke’s “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset” collaborations with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater.
But such moments aren’t plentiful enough to adequately juice the film, and as the characters whine, bicker and wallow, they’re more tedious than stirring. Hawke’s overuse of voiceover and flashback further undermines impact, as do the limitations of the stars. Webber (“Storytelling”), though on track, doesn’t supply enough sizzle to compensate for Hawke’s lack of directorial vigor, and Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), struggling with her English, is blander still. Unlike Hawke-Delpy, who swept us onto their wavelength, these characters can’t convince us that they even click.
The supporting characters fare stronger, however, and make it hard to give up on the movie. William’s disappointed but persevering mother, played by Laura Linney, is a vibrant presence. William’s mess-up of a dad, played with dimension by Hawke, is sufficiently affecting, in his climactic encounter with his son, to give the film a whit of resonance.
The Hottest State **½
Starring Mark Webber, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke
Written and directed by Ethan Hawke; adapted from his novel
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes