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Movie Reviews : ‘Static’: Brave Signal in Need of Fine-Tuning

For a while, as it bravely balances quirky comedy with strains of small-town pathos, the modest, independent feature “Static” (AMC Century 14) seems as if it might slowly be moving toward a twinkly sort of “Twilight Zone” denouement.

Its young hero, Ernie, has spent two secretive years building a machine in his apartment that he feels certain will prove the existence of an afterlife: a direct TV pipeline to heaven itself. The townspeople of his tiny Arizona burg have been awaiting the mystery machine’s debut, their suspense concerning the nature of the contraption outweighed only by their curiosity over Ernie’s genius and/or dementia. Some of the older cowboys in town even make bets on his sanity in anticipation of the big unveiling.

We’ve seen small-town eccentrics like Ernie in the movies before, gentle, lovable nuts who inevitably prove to be somehow right about their impossible, celestial dreams in spite of themselves. This isn’t quite Rod Serling territory, however, nor is it “The Boy Who Could Fly” or “Uforia.”

Director Mark Romanek (making his feature debut) and lead actor Keith Gordon (“Christine,” “Back to School”), who together scripted this odd, slow, enticing little movie, have something a bit more pungent and a bit less wistful on their minds. And it’s safe to say that if Ernie does find heaven, it won’t be a triumphant fantasy climax in which the misunderstood boy wonder gets to prove his mettle to all the doubting townsfolk.

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It’s easy to admire Romanek and Gordon for avoiding the offbeat cliches that might afflict as unusual a character as Ernie, even as you wish they’d taken more care to feed their malnourished script.

The uneven “Static” seems like an hourlong teleplay padded out to feature length with long pauses and repetitious dialogue, yet it’s redeemed by a host of fascinating supporting characters who virtually cry out for more screen time than they get.

Shining among them are Amanda Plummer as Ernie’s almost equally strange childhood soul mate, back in town for Christmas vacation; Lily Knight as a coffee-shop waitress whose longtime attraction toward Ernie is unrequited, and, best of all, Bob Gunton in a terrific comic turn as Ernie’s definitely disturbed cousin, a cunning but not inhuman survivalist whose nuclear family (a Vietnamese wife and two kids named North and South) drinks Tang by the gallon.

As viewers of “Static” (MPAA-rated R) try to tune in to the movie’s thematic wavelength, instead of a clear signal, they may find themselves picking up just . . . well, you know.

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