Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Multimedia performance artist Miranda July's first feature is an astonishing balancing act that revolves around two slightly dazed casualties of life holding on to the conviction that there's magic just waiting to be discovered behind everyday banality — despite crushing evidence to the contrary. Just as its calculated, self-conscious quirkiness threatens to become unbearable, the film suddenly pulls off a perfectly calibrated grace note so unexpected that it's almost breathtaking. Shoe-salesman Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), who's separating from his wife, has an uneasy relationship with fatherhood. His sons, 14-year-old Peter (Miles Thompson) and 6-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), regard their high-strung dad as though he were an alien, and his goodbye gesture — setting fire to his own hand — does nothing to improve matters. But he perseveres, sleeping in the living room of his new apartment so they can have the bedroom, and he didn't mean to barbecue his own flesh. He was just trying to reproduce a trick his uncle used to do, forgetting that it involved rubbing alcohol rather than lighter fluid. Struggling mixed-media artist Christine Jesperson (July), who supports her art by working as an elder-cab driver, meets Richard when she ferries one of her clients (Hector Elias) to the mall. Richard encourages her to take life by the horns, and while her initial efforts to press her work on the snooty director of a local museum or to make a date with Richard fail dismally, both eventually yield results. Meanwhile, Richard's teenage neighbors, Rebecca and Heather (Najarra Townsend, Natasha Slayton), flirt with the swaggering Andrew (Brad Henke), who encourages them with obscene notes taped to his front window but panics when they call his bluff. They in turn choose the doleful Peter to judge their proficiency at oral sex, while little Robby blunders into a bizarrely scatological flirtation in an online chat room and makes a date to meet his cybersex suitor in a nearby park. July's mirror world is populated by the eternally hopeful walking wounded, all doing the best they can with what they have — which isn't always much — to negotiate the vagaries of loneliness, loss and love. The all-too-familiar — nervous, giggly girls lurking beneath the bravado of underage hoydens — rubs shoulders with the surreal, like the tapping quarter that freezes the sun in the sky, and the result is discomfiting, funny and oddly touching.