Ethan Hawke presents us with a vexing problem. As an actor whose handsomeness is decaying rapidly, he’s only getting better; witness Before Sunset and his skittish sense of desperation. As a novelist and director (this is his second film), Hawke is trapped in a bubble of nostalgia, and it’s a killer. Seriously hobbled by sentiment, The Hottest State, adapted by Hawke from his own autobiographical novel, is the kind of Billyburg-set romance that feels unintentionally parodic: an insta-indie. Everything we see is tinted by a rose-colored self-fondness, down to the perfectly mussed bedheads, the unusually capacious apartments, the lousy bar music that’s supposed to be really good.
Mark Webber, an earnest bounder of an actor, plays Hawke surrogate William, an up-and-coming thespian with a difficult Texas childhood and a blazing crush on Latina mystery folkie Sarah (Sandino Moreno, increasingly out of her depth since Maria Full of Grace). The two begin a physical relationship with illusions of emotional connection; when it ends abruptly, we’re meant to quake with the wrongness of it all. “I think you’ll be astonished at how many times you’ll fall in love,” says Laura Linney, as William’s battle-scarred mother, in one of the film’s rare moments of clarity. Hawke can write that line, but he can’t direct an entire film as tough and truthful.