IN AMERICAN BEAUTY, young Ricky Fitts is a high school drug dealer who obsessively videotapes everything, even the most private of moments. But compared to the other personalities swirling around him, Ricky, played by 21-year-old Wes Bentley, seems to be the eye of the storm, the character with the most strength and composure.

Bentley gives an impressive, earnest performance as the quiet boy who connects with his surroundings through a video lens, and extracts beauty from overlooked, mundane objects. In one scene, Ricky shows one of his tapes to Jane, his next-door neighbor (Thora Birch): footage of a white plastic bag being blown around on a windy day. Bentley tilts his head and gazes lovingly at the dancing bag, fascinated with the simplicity and richness of a single image. His calm, persistent intensity -- which appears so authentic -- makes you wonder where Ricky ends and Wes begins.

"I'm very close to how Ricky is," he says. "I love observing people, and... just finding the beauty in things."

Sam Mendes, the film's director, must've sensed the similarity too. Bentley nailed his audition and beat out several better-known Hot Young Actors for the role. "Sure, I knew there were bigger names," he says, "but I knew I could do this part. The story just moved me so much."

Talking to Juilliard-trained Bentley at this point in his career is interesting. He hasn't adopted the trademark schtick of handsome Hollywood actors: the breezy, slightly jaded tone, the cliché answers about the "craft" or the "process." Instead, he's charming, soft-spoken, and eager to chat about life on the set ("we joked and laughed through the whole thing"), life in L.A. compared to New York ("it is so different"), and working with theater veteran Mendes: "[So many] film directors have forgotten about actors; they focus on story or shooting. But with Sam, his characters are the story."

After American Beauty, Bentley will probably be in high demand, landing a bunch of shifty, offbeat roles -- the "quirky guy" or "mysterious drifter." He seems wary about "the business" right now, yet still optimistic about only doing substantial, meaningful work. But with his graceful good looks and gentle demeanor (think Joaquin Phoenix with better eyebrows), he could easily fall into the Cute-Guy-in-a-Teen-Flick trap. "I will never do that," he insists. "I would never take a role I don't think is... different somehow." Since he can be seen next as a serial killer in The White River Kid, it's safe to assume Bentley isn't going to let us down. For now. But keep this kid away from Kevin Williamson.

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