||The latest installment in Shooting Gallery's fall independent film series (for further information on which log on to movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is an ostentatiously low-key, aggressively unaffected little piece about Charlie O'Connell (Jason Cairns), a young man just released from prison after serving a sentence for the mercy killing of his grandfather and intending to make a new life for himself through hard work and determination. Charlie is contrasted with his best buddy Nick (Kane Picoy), a former major league rookie who ruined his chance at a sports career and is now working as a garbageman. Charlie, who has no family left, is taken in by Nick, his supportive mother and his beneficent but hot-tempered father; he also works diligently to complete his hours of community service, finds romance with his boss Sarah (Autumn Macintosh), takes a sanitation job alongside Nick, and goes back to school. Nick, on the other hand, falls into a downward spiral, quitting his job after believing he can get another lucrative shot at baseball and envying Charlie's involvement with Sarah. The parallel observations of the two youths, along with the strain their opposite trajectories put on their friendship, form the centerpiece of Tony Barbieri's debut feature, which was warmly received at Sundance in 1998.
It's certainly commendable when a picture focuses on the lives of lower-middle-class Americans struggling to make it in today's society--a subject that's generally ignored in the Hollywood mainstream--especially when the treatment avoids the melodramatic excesses that can easily infect such tales on the rare occasions that they're filmed. But "One" goes too far in the direction of reticence, deliberately dampening the emotional resonance of the story so persistently that the characters become opaque and the narrative overly flat and matter-of-fact, even at the most wrenching moments. And yet Barbieri can't resist periodically juicing things up with some fussy, arch camerawork, so that the effort at a reserved, naturalistic framework is sporadically undermined by ill-timed exhibitions of directorial pizzazz.
Thus while generally striving for the sort of blue-collar authenticity which has the cast, especially Cairns (but pointedly excluding Paul Herman as Nick's volatile dad), speaking in slow, halting tones (even if in quite flawless diction) and going about their business with calm deliberation, and employing detached, simple cinematography to emphasize the ordinariness of the complications that arise, Barbieri also occasionally shoots placid conversations in hallways or between walls to conceal one of the interlocutors; and in another, even more intrusive, case of stylistic affectation, he has his camera focus on an ashtray in the foreground while two blurry figures engage in a romantic encounter behind it. Perhaps the intent in such instances is to suggest that we're only witnessing the top layer of the lives we're watching and that the exteriors can only suggest the depths of the characters, but since neither the actors nor the writing offer any hint of what might we might be missing, the effect is more puzzling than revelatory. And when we reach the story's climax, in which one of the characters meets an unhappy end, the simplicity of the composition and the distancing that the camera gives to it possess a certain elegance and poignancy, but it's then capped by a meditative shot on a beach that comes across as emptily conventional.
It's this split quality that ultimately keeps "One" from being as effective as one might have hoped. And it affects the performances as well. Cairns is so laid-back as Charlie that he's never able to reveal the character's inner life: the ex-con is exceptionally articulate (despite a poor school history), and in discussions with his parole officer Dan (Muhammed Hasan) he seems reasonably intelligent and perceptive: yet he ignores signals of danger from his prison days and thereby silently puts himself and all his acquaintances in peril. Why? Autumn Macintosh has a similar problem playing Sarah: she's presented as a gracious and helpful girl, but her attitude toward Charlie, with its doe-eyed sympathy and affection, makes her seem slightly dense rather than compassionate and loving. Picoy has an easier time with Nick, since he gets to glower and stew a bit, and Herman is even better as his father, nicely etching the churning emotion of a middle-class father tired of seeing his son throw away the chances life has given him. But even in their cases the figures they play remain curiously one-dimensional.
Barbieri's modesty in "One" is, to a certain extent, commendable: at least he avoids the extravagant overpointing of middle-class life that one gets in such recent pictures as "Erin Brockovich" or the forthcoming "Pay It Forward." But he doesn't achieve anywhere near the combination verisimilitude and impact that Victor Nunez has managed to lend to "Ruby in Paradise" or "Ulee's Gold." Instead his first feature shows promise while not fully realizing it: as is true most forcefully in the penultimate scene, when the grisliness of a violent act is deliberately shielded from our eyes and the scene kept at a discreet distance, "One" is bloodless in both senses of the word.