Director: Ethan Hawke
When Sarah, the female singer he recently started dating nervously informs William of her stage fright, he advises her to impersonate her favorite singer and eventually she’ll find that she’s become herself during the performance. Of course, what our young character doesn’t realize is how dangerous such a proposition is for someone in their early twenties who often haven’t the foggiest perception of their own individual personality themselves. It’s worse still when not only does Sarah barely know herself but neither does William or for that matter writer/director Ethan Hawke whose under-developed character of Sarah is made all the more noticeable when contrasted with the fully realized, articulate and autobiographical William. Based on the semiautobiographical debut novel of actor turned writer/director Ethan Hawke that I read in the 1990’s with the title of the same name that refers both to young love and also the hottest state in the country (Texas), the story seemed to be less cinematic than the actor’s Ash Wednesday penned a few years ago. Yet the film version of State does pay homage to a lot of classic films including Paris, Texas, The Last Picture Show and Splendor in the Grass—incidentally all of which are movies that aspiring actor William (the spitting image of young Hawke played by Mark Webber) attends in the film. After the Texas native from a broken home—the product of hardworking mom Laura Linney and estranged dad Ethan Hawke (in a terrific Sam Shepard inspired turn), ventures to New York to make a name for himself, he meets a beguiling hopeful singer named Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) with an unexplained love of country music twang despite coming from middle class Connecticut. Played by the talented yet woefully miscast Maria Full of Grace Academy Award nominated actress Moreno, Sarah is a beautiful yet frustratingly vague fellow bohemian who, despite her proclamation that she does not want a boyfriend, ends up tagging along with William for a week of passion when he journeys to his location shoot in Mexico for a filmed adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Of course, the bliss is only temporary for when William returns, he finds a much changed Sarah, angered by the loss of control one faces in the early stages of love as she drives him away in a quest for space which brings out the most painful and obsessive reactions in William that Hawke admirably and unflinchingly depicts. Michelle Williams has a nice if small role as an ex-girlfriend of William’s who appears as first a shoulder than an entire body for William to cry on and she’s so good in her few scenes with a fascinating range of choices that we begin to wish that Hawke had combined her character with Sarah’s for more depth and cast Michelle Williams as the leading lady, instead working with the talented Moreno in his next work.
While it’s a film that overstays its welcome by a good twenty to thirty minutes mostly because William is the only character we feel we actually understand despite some great subtle supporting work by Linney, Hawke and others but Hawke's earnest dialogue does display his considerable talent as he captures not only the angst to be found in heartbreaking young love but also in trying to come of age as an artist. Perhaps, the best example of this is expressed in a rare and poignant moment by Moreno on her front porch when she brings Webber home for the holidays and asks, “Don’t you find it odd when you’re a kid—everyone in the whole world tells you to follow your dreams—and when you get older they act all offended if you even try?” And while I can’t say that The Hottest State is a wholly successful work by Hawke, I can say that I’m grateful that he tried and managed to depict the passion of young artists trying to follow those dreams despite the bumps along the way.