Dir: Stephen Gaghan. US. 2002. 99mins.

The directorial debut of Oscar-winning Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, Abandon is not so much a teen thriller as a Bright Young Thing thriller - and like some of its Ivy League student characters it may be a bit too clever for its own good. US cinemagoers have certainly given the Spyglass Entertainment production (distributed by thriller expert Paramount) a cool reception in the competitive run-up to Halloween: a first weekend gross of $5.3m from 2,341 sites, for a disappointing average of $2,264. Prospects do not seem much better in the international marketplace (where Spyglass is distributing through independents or Buena Vista), though the top billing of Dawson's Creek star Katie Holmes could draw female-skewing audiences in territories where that teen TV show is popular. The presence of Charlie Hunnam, best known up to now for British TV's Queer As Folk, might help slightly in the UK.

The project seems at first like an odd choice for Gaghan, who wrote the script ('suggested' by Sean Desmond's novel Adam's Fall) and reportedly took on directing duties as well only when Edward Zwick dropped out. But Gaghan clearly makes an effort to give the story some of the moral shadings that characterised his scripts for Traffic and Rules Of Engagement.

Katie Burke (Holmes) is an accomplished university student working under the pressure of impending final exams and competition for the top Wall Street jobs. When she is questioned by recovering alcoholic cop Wade Handler (Bratt) about Embry (Hunnam), an ex-boyfriend who disappeared two years earlier, Katie can offer little help in the investigation. But soon she begins to catch glimpses of her precociously talented old flame around campus and before long she is turning to Handler for protection from the apparently threatening Embry.

During its deliberately paced build-up, Abandon paints a relatively complex picture of student life, as Katie and her friends (played by Union, Mann and, most enjoyably, Deschanel, from Almost Famous) try to balance the demands of ambition and idealism and work and partying. As plot concerns begin to take over, however, the film turns into a psychological thriller relying largely on fancy structural footwork - flashbacks and the confusion of reality and fantasy - to build tension. Gaghan unfolds the story quite skilfully, although the structural tricks are likely to test the patience of some audiences, until the abrupt and final plot twist, which feels as if it has been borrowed from a much more conventional, and less interesting, genre movie.

The performances are all solid, although none offers the kind of charisma that might have given the film more commercial appeal. Holmes, who has made big screen appearances in The Gift and Wonder Boys and will next be seen in the now-delayed Phone Booth, makes a likeable brainy-girl-next-door but does not appear yet to have real marquee potential.

Bratt, meanwhile, whose biggest film success so far has been Miss Congeniality, has to make do with another fairly limited role. Hunnam brings a certain sexy screen presence to the proceedings but the unlikely part of genius-in-the-making Embry gives little indication of how the actor will do in his more substantial forthcoming outings, like the title role in MGM's Christmas release Nicholas Nickleby.

Prod co: Spyglass Entertainment
US dists:
Paramount Pictures
Int'l dist:
Spyglass/Buena Vista Int'l
Exec prod:
Richard Vane
Lynda Obst, Edward Zwick, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber
Gaghan, suggested by the book Adam's Fall by Sean Desmond
Matthew Libatique
Prod des:
Gideon Ponte
Mark Warner
Costume des:
Louise Frogley
Clint Mansell
Main cast:
Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel, Gabrielle Union, Gabriel Mann