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'The Hottest State'

Ethan Hawke, whose parents split up in Texas when he was very young, and who went to L.A. to be an actor and to fall in love, wrote a novel a decade ago — about a kid named William whose parents split up in Texas when he was very young, and who went to New York to be an actor and to fall in love.

Now Hawke's adapted and directed a movie based on his own novel, and he also appears in it, as William's father. And though all of that makes The Hottest State sound like the ultimate vanity project, the film turns out to be an affecting story of a young man's first love. Mark Webber plays William, a bright, nervous, socially awkward 20-year-old who falls head over heels for a promising singer-songwriter played by Catalina Sandino Moreno. He's eager and puppyish, she's skittish and reserved, and their romance feels every bit as charged and authentic as real life could make it.

For the first hour the movie is swooningly romantic, and as things start to go awry, it's wrenching. Laura Linney and Sonia Braga are separately creepy as manipulative moms, and Hawke is restrained and pained as William's distant dad. Neat resolutions aren't in the cards for any of them, but growth is.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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