Passed on many chances to see this flick, mistakenly dismissing it as yet another stale Sundance-slash-Gen-X relationship comedy. It wasn't until my bud Mike started hassling me to see this thing, going so far as to call it the most "visually assured debut [he's] seen in a while" and placing it on his vaunted top ten list before I summoned up the requisite interest to haul ass to the second-run arthouse.
Charlotte Sometimes has been described by another buddy as an "Asian American Hal Hartley movie." Though I can see where he was going with this (it's a chamber drama about alienated loners where essential information about the characters is withheld), Byler veers from Hartley's mannerist stylings for a kind of poetic naturalism that evokes the lyrical passages in Andre Techine's Alice et Martin. The movie's at its best in passages where Byler beautifully evokes that blue mood of ennui. A blanket of shadow intruded by a ray of morose greens or lonely reds. A spare guiltar strums gently. A man glances up at the apartment where the object of his yearning is moaning in ecstasy, then walks into the darkness. There's a languid, understated loveliness to these sequences -- Byler creates such a palpable sense of languor I almost felt like skipping the rest of movie and hopping over to Spaceland myself to sulk in my drink and chain smoke my Spirits.
But that welcoming French sensibility goes beyond atmospherics. Byler, like Techine or my idol Rohmer, isn't afraid of contradictory impulses and ambiguous motives in his characters, which first appear (to my Asian eyes) as extremely familiar types: you've got the introverted Asian dude, the cutesy Asian girl, the acerbic, sexually aggressive dragon lady, and the corporate tool. Michael, played by Michael Idemoto, turns out to be the first Asian-American male character I've seen that rings true; he's a dutiful loner, a sensitive mechanic who is chivalric and sexually frustrated. He's not easily pigeonholed, and Idemoto's sensitive, Tony Leung-like performance gives the character a soulful dignity. But the sparkplug is Jacquline Kim's "Darcy" -- sharp, sexually confident, sassy and just a little vulnerable, Kim's a knockout, wiping the floor with the other actors on screen (the other two players are wholly unremarkable), Idemoto occasionally excepted.
I wish Byler's writing was as assured as his cinematic sense. Much of the deliberately naturalistic dialogue had no improvisational spark -- it felt unwritten without any sense of spontaneity. And the scenario, slight as it is, is realistic without believable -- the escalating "revelations" felt like bricks lugged in by Byler to give his work some heft. The film, sadly, just fizzes out.
Still, there's much to be admired here. Plus there's a startling recognition that if I ever get my act together I'd probably try to make a mood piece full of romantic yearning, though I'd probably revolve the film around more verbally oriented characters. On second thought, somebody please shoot me before I make an Asian Metropolitan. (Not that I don't adore Metropolitan. We just don't need another one.)