dir. Austin Chick

Opens Fri May 9 at Metro Cinemas.

Films about diffident men who have trouble with commitment are to post-Sundance American independent cinema what films about existential loners who have trouble with ethics were to the Vietnam era. The same could be said of indie rock and first novels, but the fact remains that romantic angst in a world of infinite possibilities is the dominant terrain of films made by middle-class white men between the ages of 25 and 35.

Another fact: No matter how the filmmaker dresses up his story of love terror, the pictures are always essentially the same--young man falls, doubts, hurts, then regrets. In some cases (as in David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls), the romance strikes a real chord; in others (Mr. Jealousy, say), it's the agony. More often, however, both sides of the equation feel like leftover adolescent existentialism, authored by men who are so proud of their emotional cowardice that they believe it qualifies as art. Whatever the case, the callow-heartbroken-jaded index has become a fixture in the mural of American film just as surely as self-reflexiveness is to Iran, and ennui is to France.

XX/XY stands above its pack by virtue of both a fantastic central performance (by Mark Ruffalo) and a probing intelligence--it seems less concerned with the hang-ups of one not-so-bizarre love triangle than with finding some universal generational truth. It's also among the first in what I presume will become a subgenre of romantic agonies set in the newly ripe-for-nostalgia era known as the early '90s.

Ruffalo plays Coles, a slacker animator right down to his 1993 vintage ironic gaucho mustache (which he wears well, I might add). Coles falls in with two foxy college girls (Maya Stange, Kathleen Robertson), one of whom represents the marrying kind, the other of whom stands for wild sex. You'll never guess what happens. Actually, of course you will. What you won't predict, however, is that the boilerplate romance arc is over midway through the film, after which writer/director Austin Chick jumps ahead to the present day, where the legacy of Coles' emotional retardation plays out as the girls of his youth reemerge to play havoc with the lies on which he has built his adult life.

Opening with a random three-way and working its way up to a marital maelstrom, XX/XY falters occasionally, but contains enough truth--and sexy interludes--to justify its existence. Which is more than I can say for most relationships.