The Hottest State

(USA - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Mark Webber, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke, Sonia Braga, Michelle Williams
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Ethan Hawke
Screenplay: Ethan Hawke from his novel
Cinematography: Chris Norr
Composer: Jesse Harris

I appreciate artists who have the guts to put their own pain on screen in a truthful manner that not only shows others at less than their finest moment, but also themselves. Confessionals have a way of rendering artists human, which is important considering the mindset of only caring about someone if they are among the best and brightest makes it difficult to truly relate to the people we see on the big screen. This problem is exacerbated by the fact most films are considerably dishonest to begin with, and when they aren’t totally the situations are more true for the characters who have all the assets and advantages than for John Q. Moviegoer.

Everyone probably has some film about the loss of a friend, lover, child – some personal tragedy you may get over but certainly will never forget – that’s very dear to them largely due to how closely it reflects their own experiences. It’s comforting to know someone else has largely shared your nightmare. The Hottest State may or may not be that film for you, and that’ll probably reflect very directly upon how you judge it. In these cases the filmmaking takes a back seat to the sincerity and integrity of the actions, feelings, and emotions, to whether you experienced the same things or believe should have tried them. Of course, the filmmaking really does go hand in hand with your opinion in these cases, as if it’s too showy, contrived, scripted, cliched, or melodramatic it will put up a barrier between the audience and their acceptance of the material. Ethan Hawke’s second film may have its limitations, but the unobtrusiveness of his style allows for the audience to focus on the dialogue, which never feels false.

One perceived shortcoming is Sarah (Catalino Sandino Moreno) never becomes a full-fledged character the way Julie Delpy did in the balanced Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. This semi-autobiographical work is Hawke’s side of the relationship, so he logically chooses to only show the male perspective. While assuming to know all the reasons beyond another person’s actions probably makes for better fiction, it’s incredibly pretentious. I give Hawke points for not having the pomposity to pretend to be an omniscient presence.

Sarah is alternately a real flesh and blood character and an aggrandized figment of William’s (Mark Webber) yearnful imagination. She’s the first true love of an immature college age kid who finds women ineffable and unknowable to begin with, so to an extent she’s a larger than life, almost mythical character William arguably never really sees. Hawke doesn’t tell us anymore than we need to know, limiting Sarah to only a few key points. Sarah dropped out of college after falling so deeply in love, or at least becoming so dependent upon her boyfriend’s presence, she still wanted him long after he stopped reciprocating and started cheating in their own residence, while she was downstairs! She then moved to New York City to be independent and make it as a singer.

Hawke is the kind of person whose stories can hold your attention, it’s just a manner of finding a venue for them. As with Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris, The Hottest State is similar to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset as talking is the backbone of the mix of perceptive, intelligent, and interesting dialogue, though Hawke’s characters are less dynamic than Richard Linklater’s. Both Hawke and Delpy had a great deal of input into the Before films, particularly before Sunset which they cowrote, so it’s only natural their films would be reminiscent of Linklater’s. Linklater makes a cameo appearance in The Hottest State, while Sandino Moreno delivers her lines with the same intonation and paused style as Delpy, and obviously Webber does his best imitation of Hawke.

The first hour is very romantic, showing the gestation period of the relationship. Though the negatives are present, we join the new couple in focusing on the positive. Both have relocated to New York to become artists, and they are nervous and insecure. Neither love themselves, with William being a chameleon who acts to escape his life and probably has felt alone and empty since his father Vince (Ethan Hawke) abandoned him at the age of 8. Sarah closes herself off, putting up walls and becoming increasingly self-absorbed.

The second half is more reminiscent of Joan Micklin Silver’s best film Chilly Scenes of Winter, depicting the fallout of a relationship between a man who becomes increasingly obsessive through rejection and a cowardly woman who miserably underrates herself. Sarah is a borderline personality who is always pushing forward back. The more one wants to succeed, the greater the temptation to fall back on what’s supposed to work. William sees his distant and detached girlfriend has low self-esteem, so he figures he can help her and himself by showing she’s valuable. But it only makes things worse for him, allowing Sarah to transfer her problem to the person who suddenly represents it through indirectly calling attention to it. This isn’t the root of their problem, it exists in Sarah long before William enters the picture, but she’s not only unable to deal with her low self-opinion, she can’t show William the levity of the matter. She’ll say she’s not as interesting as he thinks she is, and he’ll complement her further rather than getting that he’d probably be better off never telling her anything good about herself because it’s just too absurd.

What kills William is their relationship dissipates as soon as it peaks. William falls in love during their week in Mexico. He’s convinced they are good together and thrilled by the joy she’s brought him. He thinks she feels the same, and they almost marry. The transformatory effects of absence never cease to amaze me. People realize how much they miss you and are thrilled to have you back or move on to someone or something else and would just assume you didn’t bother to return. Sometimes you come back, but they seem to have left, or rather been replaced by a heartless replicant.

William knows he’s not perfect, and has in fact been prone to making himself ridiculous and committing self destructive mistakes through his quick temper, but he hasn’t done anything wrong at the moment. He rushes back from the month it took him to complete his first movie bearing gifts to show her his appreciation, but she dumps him coldly and flatly. The timing makes it impossible to take, as he can’t even precisely pin his loss on any one blunder. It’s forever a riddle locked inside an enigma.

With someone as fickle as Sarah you either choose to play by their rules and focus on the good or bail. William isn’t good at giving up; he’s one of those people who are far too persistent for their own good. He’s placed all his hopes in her, and refuses to relinquish the one good thing in his life, his void filler. He gets great advice from his mother (Laura Linney) and estranged father (Ethan Hawke), both excellent in small roles, but he doesn’t hear them because he isn’t listening for anything beyond an angle to get her back.

Fear is a huge factor for both. It takes a lot for Babbling Bill to be comfortable enough to lose his posturing and pretending, relax, and be himself. William has someone to move on, or rather back to, as Samantha (Michelle Williams) still has a crush on him. However, he can’t just be that person with her; he’d be back to square one, back to rambling and stumbling. Attaining the comfort level he has with Sarah in a short time is thrilling, so to immediately be back to nothing is unfathomable. Making a fool of himself seems more worthwhile in the film as who cares about bad hair year Michelle Williams if there’s even the possibility Catalina Sandino Moreno might love you. In the novel, Sarah is a “funny looking” chubby girl, and as Hawke largely films the text he wrote a decade ago, some of the dialogue seems awkward due to William grappling with the idea he’s fallen for someone that doesn’t physically stoke him.

Even though William is needy and prone to being annoying, what keeps Sarah from loving him, it seems, is Sarah’s defense mechanisms kicking in. Her heart is locked up and she’d rather flee than surrender herself and risk the negatives. The film eventually comes to a halt through a mix of turmoil and stasis that matches William’s life. If only Sarah gave in to grandstanding the way Ione Skye did in Say Anything... William would have temporarily spared himself a ton of heartache. Instead William’s freefall is unforgettable in a cringe inducing manner, particularly his series of answering machine messages which are that much more horrific due to the fact he’s verbally impotent once he finally succeeds in prompting her to stop ignoring him at least long enough to tell him to leave her alone. Love sucks, and then you fall in love again.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *