The Hottest State

Ethan Hawke/United States 2007

A sense of anguish permeates Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State, which dramatizes the heady and painful side of romance. The film, which Hawke adapted from his novel of the same title, initially seems like another hipster romance akin to those the writer-director has spent much of his career appearing in. As it wears on, however, it becomes clear that the filmmaker has altogether different aspirations. His work is less a typical Brooklyn set, boy-meets-girl story than a thoughtful, intense examination of the psychological imprints left by past failures, particularly the ways one’s failed relationships, romantic or otherwise, profoundly shape the future.

The film stars Mark Webber as William Harding, a young Williamsburg-dwelling actor biding his time at bars and parties while awaiting a career-making opportunity. While doing so, he also expends considerable energy charming women, without every fully committing. Until, that is, he meets recent émigré Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), in town to advance her singing career. Instant attraction transforms into passionate, obsessive love, at least on his part. Sarah, though she partakes in his declarations of affection, seems somehow distanced, and when the reasons why are known William finds himself spiraling down a self-destructive hole, and looking to his bitter mother (Laura Linney) and absent father (Hawke) for guidance.

It’s odd to see a purported romance so bent on being less than romantic. There’s more intense anger than happiness on display, and it can be difficult to watch William undergo such a bitter, challenging ordeal. Webber’s in every scene and Hawke never shies from unflinchingly depicting his agony, following him on lonely walks through the city and enhancing the rawness of his self-destruction with jarring visual tricks. The movie is, however, lovely to look at, an eloquent blend of different styles. Working with cinematographer Chris Norr, Hawke finds as much beauty in the small towns and wide-open spaces of the Texas scenes as he does Brooklyn’s darkened streets, crowded clubs and spare apartments.

Despite its writer’s advancing age, the screenplay remains attuned to what it’s like to be young and in love, when every small development or slight action attains powerful significance. The key to the movie, though, lies in William’s flashbacks to his childhood. Almost exclusively shot in first person, these feature his dad making promises he can’t keep, his mother badmouthing his father, and the two of them fighting. In keeping the young William hidden from view, Hawke communicates the powerful sway these memories hold over the older character. He’s been so traumatized by the dissolution of the dominant relationship in any person’s early life, as well as his father’s subsequent abandonment, that he can neither capably pursue his own, nor cope with the heartache involved.

The story, then, finds its heart as a coming of age drama. It’s hopeful and rewarding, not because everything ends on a happy, Hollywood note, but because it dramatizes the path William takes so that his future relationships might. Movies, particularly those in the romantic genres, are rarely this attuned to believable, real world emotions and their complex roots. In The Hottest State, Hawke evokes the dramatic power of life’s greatest difficulties, and the catharsis found in fulfilling each of the small steps required to overcome them.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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