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Ethan Hawke's 'Hottest State' Is No Vanity Project

The Hottest State centers on William (Mark Webber), a 20-year-old actor from Texas. He has moved to New York to get work, and to get a life. But he's socially inept, so getting a life is giving him trouble.

When he spots a lovely young singer named Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in a bar, his pickup line involves Star Trek and replicants — an awkward enough start that Sarah just stares at him, and he wonders if she even speaks English.

When she says she does, and then asks him if he's nervous, he initially says no, but then confesses to being nervous all the time. She says she is too.

So William walks Sarah home, can't get her out of his head, and feels, in that insane way of someone who has just fallen head over heels, as if his life is just beginning.

After much feverish wooing, he convinces Sarah to move in with him, and she agrees, provided that they don't have sex. Frustrated but happy, he lies next to her in bed just staring at her sleeping form all night, and mooning over his good fortune.

With William so puppyish and eager, Sarah's reserve starts to melt, and soon their romance feels as charged as it would in real life — possibly for a reason. Ethan Hawke, an actor who is himself from Texas by way of New York and Hollywood, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Hottest State.

He also adapted it, directed it, and even cast himself as William's father in it, all of which makes it sound like the ultimate vanity project. But there's a basic truth to the film's observations about the clumsiness and anxiety of first love.

Hawke gets lovely, nuanced performances from his two leads, and surrounds them with equally sharp performers in support — Laura Linney and Sonia Braga as differently damaged moms, and himself as a deadbeat dad back in Texas (the hottest state) who wasn't there when his actor/son was young and trying to figure out passion (the hottest state).

Much as Hawke orchestrates the early love scenes so that they ache with longing, he makes his father/son scenes with Webber ache with sorrow and forgiveness. You can see in his eyes that neat resolutions aren't in the cards for these characters, but that growth is. The film is proof.

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