Based on his uneven, but promising first novel, from 1996, State finally nails Hawke's 20-year obsession with this theme.
An intimate chamber piece, the film stars the perfectly cast Hawke-ian actor Mark Webber as William Harding, a young New York thesp who is just beginning to get decent movie roles. It costars the extraordinary Catalina Sandino Moreno, best known for her transcendent turn in Maria Full of Grace, as his lover.
The movie works due in large part to the electrifying chemistry (to mix scientific metaphors) between Webber and Moreno. Early scenes, which show the couple falling in love, are graceful, if sometimes a tad too sentimental.
The story charts a year in William's life, from the night he first meets Sarah to the couple's last heart-to-heart talk.
At first, William, who is a bit of a dog when it comes to babes, is bewildered by how Sarah makes him feel, and he watches himself falling in love - eventually plummeting without a safety net, face first onto the pavement. As an older William says via voice-over, it was really loss of love that taught him who he is.
At 20, William is at an age when "I want to become a . . ." is the default self-description. But he also lives in an age pathologically obsessed with the fear that we're nothing more than a succession of social roles.
William is terrified that there's nothing behind his masks. On first meeting her, he tells Sarah, "I'm just whoever I pretend to be."
Sarah knows who she is just fine.
"You are somebody," she tells William. "If you'd stop pretending, it'll come out all by itself."
Hawke seems to be plugging into an idea shared by a line of male artists and thinkers, from Dante and Goethe to Hesse and Jung, who believed that guys, especially the creative ones, are incomplete as persons until they discover their anima, that mysterious female element that would make them whole.
Sarah is William's Beatrice, who first leads him into his hell, into an existential crisis about his identity, before letting him find his way out.
The Hottest State ***(out of four stars)
Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, based on his novel The Hottest State. With Mark Webber, Jesse Harris, Laura Linney, Frank Whaley, Hawke, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Alexandra Daddario. Distributed by ThinkFilm.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sexual content, profanity)
Playing at: Ritz Five
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or email@example.com.