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The Hottest State

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The Hottest State

Director: Ethan Hawke
Runtime: 117 minutes
Cast: Mark Webber, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Laura Linney

The first blessed moment of clarity in Ethan Hawke's insufferable relationship drama The Hottest State comes courtesy of Sonia Braga, who appears as the straight-talking mother of enigmatic would-be singer Catalina Sandino Moreno. Sandino Moreno has brought home her latest boyfriend, a grungy Hawke-type played by Mark Webber, and Braga asks him pointedly about his faith. Webber says being with her daughter is the first time he's felt the presence of God. (Granted, she's pretty.) Braga turns to Sandino Moreno and says, "What you have here is a bullshit artist."

Based on Hawke's novel, The Hottest State is a feature-length exercise in bullshit artistry, a tangled love story that would get untangled if either of the two partners could look past their navels and start acting straight with each other. There's no doubt that Hawke intended it that way, too: Webber and Sandino Moreno are both in their early 20s, both uncertain where their lives are heading, and both incapable of expressing clearly what they want from each other, much less what they can give. The trick for Hawke is to make their essential flakiness emotionally compelling, like himself and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise. Instead, it's just exasperating.

After a prologue that roots his romantic failings in his parents' ill-fated coupling in Texas, The Hottest State finds Webber living on his own in New York, trying to find work as an actor by day while trawling neighborhood haunts at night, looking for love. When he meets Sandino Moreno, he's instantly smitten and she's at least willing to indulge him, though at a distance Webber is never quite capable of bridging. They have a nice honeymoon period while Webber is on a shoot in Mexico, but that time merely paves the road to heartbreak.

Neither Webber nor Sandino Moreno are what would be considered "relationship material": He's needy, moody, and intense (a real catch!) and she's inscrutable and standoffish. Hawke psychoanalyzes the situation and lays the blame on Webber's long-absent father for leaving him in the lurch and setting a poor example on how to deal with women. That may be true, but judging by the far more interesting adults in the film—Braga, a terrific Laura Linney as Webber's mother, and Hawke as his father—the solution for Webber and Sandino Moreno is to grow up and not be so full of themselves. In their current state, they make for unpleasant company, and so does the film.