Innovative, mournful, and politically charged, this piece of journalistic theater translates powerfully to the screen. Helmed by its original stage director, cinematic newcomer Moises Kaufman, The Laramie Project manages not only to sidestep the obvious emotions milked by TV movies about the Matthew Shepard case, but also to reject all of their hackneyed techniques. Compiled by the Tectonic Theater Project from hundreds of hours of interviews with the residents of Laramie, WY, where Shepard was murdered, the film is more of a sociological interrogation than a dramatic story. Fragmentary and spare, the material benefits enormously from Kaufman's precise pacing, judicious use of split screens and wide-open exteriors, and sensitive direction of a motley Hollywood cast. Christina Ricci has one of the punchiest roles as Romaine Patterson, Shepard's fiery lesbian best friend, but even Laura Linney, in just one extended scene and a few snippets, manages to nail one particular outlook and set of responses, contributing to the mosaic of individual thoughts and emotions that make up the piece. Performers as diverse as '60s survivor Peter Fonda and Dawson's Creek teenybopper Joshua Jackson exhibit the same careful attention to craft. Amy Madigan deserves special mention for her grave cop role, which scans like Frances McDormand's part in Fargo drained of its humor and Minnesota kitsch. One of the few moments that rankles is the inclusion of actual news reports from the time of the murder; there's enough leftie celebrity glitz involved in the casting without seeing the real-life Ellen DeGeneres in footage of a vigil. Such minor quibbles aside, this is the most powerful film produced about the Shepard murder -- a stunning achievement considering the young man himself never appears.