Cinemalphabet: H is for The Hottest State (2006)
It’s easy to toss about terms like “hipster love story” and “vanity piece” when discussing Ethan Hawke’s 2006 directorial effort. After all it’s based on novel written by Hawke and does tell the story of two very attractive people – in this case one ambiguously raced and one white – who fall for each other under the most hipsterish of circumstances. But to do so sort of misses all that is decent, sweet and surprising about this reasonably faithful adaptation of Hawke’s much maligned novel. The novel itself, is an inexplicable favorite of mine, though the same cannot be said of its filmed counterpart. The film is not terrible; it’s good, but what seemed slightly interesting in novel form doesn’t add up to much on the screen. Though it’s not for a lack of trying by the film’s capable leads, script and director.
The film utilizes Dede Allen-esque editing, where scenes overlap and audio from upcoming scenes is presented over the current action. When applied sparingly it adds drama and interest to visuals, but when overused as it is in The Hottest State it distracts and feels incredibly gimmicky. A lot of Hawke’s directing choices in the film could be described as such and at times I kind of wish he had used some restraint. The characters don’t have a lot to do besides fall in love and destroy each other, and I’m not sure how gimmicky editing enhances the story for audience. Oh wait it doesn’t.
- “In “The Hottest State,” Hawke uses fairly standard childhood motivations for his unhappiness and reveals too little real interest in the Sara character. Why did she seem to fall in love and then announce she didn’t want to see him anymore? From her point of view, I mean. In fact, the best angle on this whole story might be from her point of view.”
(via Roger Ebert)
I had a similar feeling watching William and Sara interact. Again, what the novel made explicit – the story is about William and how he comes to terms with immaturity and sense of entitlement – is rendered invisible on the screen. I’m not sure why Hawke tried to make us like our main characters when that was never an agenda of the novel. In the novel neither character comes across as likable or even especially sympathetic, so their motivations and actions made little sense in the film, given their personality makeovers.
Thankfully, some of novel’s minor character are given way more to do in the film – William’s mother, Sara’s mother and William’s ex Samantha – and in the capable hands of a trio of actors (Laura Linney, Sonia Braga and Michelle Williams respectively) have the effect of grounding the film in a way the lead characters cannot. Even Hawke’s own pivotal minor role provides necessary gravitas at a moment when the film desperately needs it. I think the chief flaw of the film is one of not being sure of what it wants to say. Is it a character piece? Is it a love story? Is it a coming-of-age saga or a series of intriguing vignettes? Having said all that, The Hottest State is not a problematic film any more so than the average romantic drama and certainly less grating than other hipster love stories of the OOs.