Though primarily known for his acting, Ethan Hawke published his semi-autobiographical debut novel The Hottest State back in 1996, the first of two fictional works to date. It’s a succinct but slight love story charting the relationship of two young Brooklyn artists (he’s an actor, she’s a musician) from hopeful start to acrimonious end, told primarily from the point of the man, William. Around ten years ago Hawke adapted the book for the screen, took on directing duties, and cast himself as William’s estranged father. At times the influence of fellow Texan, friend and collaborator Richard Linklater looms large (Linklater even appears in a cameo), while Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is another clear touchstone (it’s clunkily referenced during the film, along with Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas); unfortunately Hawke arguably draws too much from these influences, as well as other romantic dramas.
A brief prologue shows a couple meeting in Texas at some point in the mid-1970s (the ‘hottest state’ of the title, and duly filmed – along with scenes in Mexico – with a clichéd red and orange glaze). Shortly these Lone Star-crossed lovers will become the parents of our main protagonist William, who is played as an adult by Mark Webber. Hawke then drops us in a present day New York City bar, where William meets singer Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Oscar-nominated for her debut in Maria Full Of Grace and very good opposite Benecio del Toro in Che). Both have recently arrived in the city and, coincidentally, his window overlooks her front door. They hit it off, and in the blink of an eye are living together, but both struggle to deal with this sudden acceleration and period of adjustment. She finds it difficult to commit and is weighed down by her tentativeness around sex, while his sudden bursts of frustrated anger in response apparently stem from the trauma caused by his parents’ break-up, subsequently fed by the cold pragmatism of his mother (Laura Linney) and the rejection he has suffered at the hands of his father.
Unfortunately Hawke chooses to tell the story of their relationship by using a number of overly-familiar scenes and characters. In summary: William has the kind of outspoken, socially-awkward best friend (Decker, played by Josh Zuckerman) who fits far too comfortably into the stereotypical role of wacky sidekick. When William and Sarah move in together, and decide to re-decorate, a spot of wall painting ends after 30 seconds so that they can fool around in the bedroom (my own experience is more like this: you paint for hours on end, complete the job, collapse on the sofa, order pizza and then dribble in and out of sleep during Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, too tired to even bother pressing any buttons that will banish the conjoined and irritatingly-perky professional shills from your TV screen). William and Sarah (almost) turn a trip to Mexico into an elopement. William’s ex-girlfriend Samantha (Michelle Williams channelling the Dawson’s Creek years as opposed to any later award-winning work) is, implausibly, still on the scene, and as you’d expect she throws herself at the male protagonist when the opportunity arises. When the couple break-up William even stands in the street outside Sarah’s window, reciting a passage from Romeo and Juliet. Later on we get the emotional ‘where were you when I was growing up?’ porchside conversation with his father that ends with a neat reconciliation and dad’s homespun advice about women. And so it continues. The inevitable scene where William stands in the rain using a public payphone to call Sarah in the middle of the night, only for her to realise he’s just outside when a passing vehicle siren tips her off? Check. By the time William leaves a succession of awkward answerphone messages only for Sarah, who has been listening all along, to interrupt one and ask him not to call anymore (a la Swingers) it’s enough to make you feel like giving up. There’s a reason why The Hottest State feels like a succession of strung-together scenes that you have seen elsewhere many times over, and unfortunately there just aren’t enough original ideas on show.
The performances are OK. Interestingly, Hawke’s character bears more than a passing resemblance to Mason Sr from Boyhood, which he would have been filming at the same time, right down to the irresponsible car, the successful ‘second attempt’ at parenthood and the chats held with his young son while driving. The ever-classy Linney leaves you wanting to see more of her character, and in terms of the leads Moreno is fine, but with the best will in the world Webber struggles to impose his presence as the troubled young man at the heart of the film; this becomes more apparent as the focus shifts towards him during the final act. Moreno’s character suffers at this point, with no thorough explanation for or examination of her actions or her state of mind; aren’t two people upset when a relationship ends?
The Hottest State is a very ‘talky’ film, and in that sense it brings to mind Linklater’s Before series, which also starred Hawke, though this isn’t anywhere near as captivating and the dialogue is patchy. Additionally, despite the reliance on discourse between the principal characters the sound quality is occasionally poor, although that’s hardly unexpected with regard to low budget filmmaking such as this. (The cheaply-made indie aesthetic is accentuated by the shaky camerawork but at least these technical imperfections offer a counterpoint to the trend for smoothness that many feel is currently neutering American independent cinema.)
Hawke’s film feels slightly too self-indulgent and slightly too self-conscious, and the disjointed narrative the director opts for becomes confusing on several occasions; Blue Valentine (also starring Michelle Williams) and (500) Days Of Summer have both subsequently managed to tell the story of a hipster break-up via flashback with more clarity, though I did like the use of non-simultaneous diegetic sound that accompanies some of The Hottest State’s montages, as it adds to the sense of time passing and does help to increase the poignancy of the images. Unfortunately it becomes muddled as the film progresses: there are more scenes of William travelling from one place to another than I care for, and it’s hard to figure out whether he’s going north or south, or at what point in the story we’re at while he stares wistfully out of the window.
I take no pleasure in suggesting these as faults, as this is exactly the kind of film I feel like I should be getting behind: granted there isn’t exactly a shortage of low budget personal movies out there, particularly in the field of romantic drama, but I’ve always thought ‘the more the merrier’, particularly when mainstream cinema seems so bloated. Plus I like Ethan Hawke: he’s talented and in interviews he comes across as a nice, interesting guy. Sadly, even though I understand Hawke’s attachment to his own source material, I think The Hottest State could have done with the input of a different voice at some stage; when Linklater appears in front of the camera, for example, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been had he been employed on the other side of it.
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Written by: Ethan Hawke
Starring: Mark Webber, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Laura Linney, Michelle Williams, Ethan Hawke
Running Time: 112 minutes