Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, and based on Hawke's (I presume) autobiographical novel of the same name, The Hottest State is an intensely personal movie. Yet unlike, say, Woody Allen's autobiographical films (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Husbands and Wives), Hawke's personality doesn't flood his material. Hawke is quite casual about baring his soul to us, and audiences may not be aware how deeply he takes them into his psyche. But he holds nothing back.
The film recounts a brief, magical love affair between 20-year-old William (Mark Webber), Texas-born living in New York, and Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a beautiful Mexican who has moved to the city to pursue her singing career. The film unfolds with an easy, natural spontaneity that is both engaging and faintly ominous (we know where it's heading because William informs us in voice-over). Working with his actors and crew, Hawke uses simple, unassuming brush strokes to communicate the joy and misery, and the complexity, of falling in love. William's trouble is that he has fallen in love with "a force of evil," which is to say, with unfathomable femininity.
The Hottest State shows the futility of romantic desire without ever opting for self-pity or easy cynicism. Hawke imbues the film with the wisdom and acceptance of a broken heart made stronger and freer by the breakage. Hawke's film gets at something universal, and cuts all the way to the bone. As a result, it may stir feelings we'd rather not have to deal with, ones we'd hoped we'd put to rest. I don't think I have ever seen a romantic film that manages to be this painful without being in the least bit sentimental. It's not so much about the sadness of watching a great love die, but about the horror and incomprehensibility of it.
Although it's raw and almost nakedly personal, there's nothing amateurish about the film. Hawke's handling of his actors is flawless, and just about every scene resonates, rings bells of recognition. In scene after scene, Hawke seems to have got precisely what he was after. His use of the soundtrack (songs by Jesse Harris), free-form editing, overlapping scenes, voice-over, the rich, sensuous colors and his knack for placing the camera just where it needs to be, all is remarkably assured, making this probably the most auspicious debut from a writer-director since Sean Penn's Indian Runner. The Hottest State is a wonderful film and I felt richer for having seen it; and it deserves a wider audience, because so far as I know it did little business and got luke-warm notices. Another precious gem in danger of slipping under the radar.
The film is a little soft around the edges. Some of the dialogue (particularly between William and his mother, played by Laura Linney, and in the crucial scene with William's father, played by Hawke) may be a little too pat. We're aware of Hawke's limitations as a writer here, of his putting words into the characters' mouths instead of letting them speak for themselves (which is the problem with Sara's last few scenes). But considering what Hawke is attempting here--adapting his own novel, directing it, and playing a key role--it's an astonishingly assured work.
Like Penn, Hawke has an authentic artistic sensibility, and with any luck he could become a major filmmaker. He's so confident of getting to the truth of a scene that he achieves poetry without trying, without even a whiff of pretension. The film has a raw honesty to it, and yet it never seems self-indulgent or narcissistic. It's confessional in the best sense. It's as if getting these experiences down (in the novel, which I haven't read, and by making the film) was essential for Hawke's peace of mind, as if by sharing his pain and confusion with us, he was able to come to terms with the past and reduce its hold over him. As a result, the film has urgency and poignancy, it feels essential, from the heart. I can't think of another film that conveys the agony of heartbreak and the rite of passage it entails as effectively as this. It has its very own ache.