By Peter Hempstead

"Wild Tigers I Have Known"
Directed, written, and edited by Cam Archer
Starring: Malcolm Stumpf, Patrick White, Max Paradise, Fairuza Balk, Kim Dickens

Young director Cam Archer got a couple big names--director/producer Gus Van Sant and producer Scott Rudin among them--to back his first full-length feature, "Wild Tigers I Have Known", an overambitious coming-of-age story of gender identity confusion and unrequited love.

Prepubescent loner Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) develops a crush on high school rebel Rodeo (Patrick White), and pretty soon the gangling youth starts calling the upperclassman on the phone using the voice of a female persona, Leah. When Logan reveals himself to the unreceptive Rodeo, the spurned boy goes home, dons a wig, applies some lipstick, and tries to imitate a girl whom Rodeo will love.

The story would be heartbreaking if it weren't so slapdash. But Archer has tried too hard to impress, or shock, or both, with incongruous feats of filmmaking rather than with a solid narrative.

Fairuza Balk ("American History X") plays Logan's mom and thrums her lines with little trace of her usual gusto. White plays the dour Rodeo ably enough for a first-time actor, while Stumpf ambles about dejectedly and communicates more with his eyes than with his words.

Archer's desire to astonish with cinematic legerdemain unfortunately overshadows all else. Among his flourishes is a dreamlike room with dozens of dangling light bulbs where Logan croons through the phone to his beloved in Leah's sexy voice without opening his mouth. It's an experiment in surrealism that quickly becomes more distracting than compelling.

Despite the inherent problems with the film, it would be wrong to say that "Wild Tigers I Have Known" is without merit. Archer's willingness to experiment is laudable, but the trick is always to match technique with a well-developed story. Some have called the young Archer, at 24 years old, one to watch, and that much seems certain. Wild Tigers I Have Known is an apprentice piece by a director who will hone his craft with time.

(As part of New Directors/New Films it screened at Walter Reade, April 1 2006 and MoMA, April 2 2006)

[courtesy Hargrove Entertainment Syndicate/Lucky Girl Media]