The film version of Ethan Hawke
's The Hottest State, which he adapted from his own novel of the same name, represents a strange form of time-travel. In it, the young actor Mark Webber embodies the kind of character -- self-conscious, scruffy, chatty, and able to make self-deprecation seem downright pretentious -- that Hawke himself grew out of playing about 10 years ago. Webber even sounds a bit like Hawke in his voiceover narration; it's like a low-tech version of motion capture, allowing Hawke to virtually direct his ten-years-younger self.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a decade back is about when the novel version of The Hottest State came out. Webber
/Hawke's William is an aspiring actor, apparently, though if this aspect of the character is autobiographical, Hawke left out any details that explain how exactly he got through any auditions without clever asides or other low-key hipster gestures. William is the type of guy who talks about acting almost exclusively in terms of personal metaphors about pretending and deception, despite never appearing to act like anyone but his own insecure, talkative self. While I don't doubt that some young actors behave this way, I have a little more trouble believing they'd somehow get flown down to Mexico to star in an Alfonso Cuarón
movie (the name of the fictional film's director is never mentioned, but it's briefly visible on a clapboard, just long enough to register vague disbelief, even if it is just an autobiographical in-joke -- the real-life Hawke appeared in Cuarón's version of Great Expectations). Article continues below
While living in New York, William gets involved with Sara (Catalina Sandina Moreno
), an aspiring singer-songwriter, and their relationship anchors most of the film, in the sense that it leads the way as it sinks to the bottom. William spends so much time engaged in conversations that are so cutely conceptual -- he clearly prefers performance art to film acting -- that you wonder how Sara is able to relate to him on a human level. The film seems to think William's insecurity has something to do with his estranged father, but its flashback scenes are too slim to add real motivation.
Needing to match William's youthful impulses, Hawke writes equally inexplicable behavior for Moreno to create the necessary conflict; essentially, he proclaims his love while she alternates between returning it and warning him away. On the balance, their coupled bliss is more inscrutable than any of their misery. The confusion extends to simple continuity: At one point in the film, William and Sara both act as if they haven't had sex yet even though they have.
The insularity of their relationship may be intentional -- Hawke clearly wants to keep the focus tight -- but lacking full-bodied supporting characters does no favors for a feature-length film. Hawke tries to gently rib William's young-artist friends during a party scene that Sara quickly flees, but he's too romantic for satire, or to see how much talent goes to waste in the margins of his film; the film is almost perverse the way it sticks good actors (Laura Linney
, Michelle Williams
, and Hawke himself) in tiny roles while Webber and Moreno go at it.
Occasionally, Webber comes across scenes that utilize his youthful desperation: an excruciatingly awkward dinner with Sara's tipsy mother (Sonia Braga
), or even a few anxious moments pacing as he waits for Sara to come out of the bathroom. The key ingredient in these scenes is silence. The characters have the space to show sides not dependent on proclamations and warnings.
I have never experienced this story in book form, but contrary to just about any natural assumptions regarding novels written by actors, the aforementioned narration (which sounds like bits of prose) has better lines than any of the relentless, repetitive dialogue. Hawke may well have talent as a writer, and his visual sense is certainly decent, giving the film a sun-faded quality whether in the chill of New York or the burnished warmth of Texas (William's home state). But The Hottest State is also full of odd echoes of the Before Sunrise/Sunset series Hawke starred in for Richard Linklater -- brief periods of intense, soul-baring romance; impromptu travel; amateur singing. The fusion of the actor's on and off-screen experiences (and talents) feels mismatched -- like a doomed romance with himself.