Dir: Kevin Connolly. US. 2007. 88 mins.
Actor Kevin Connolly's directorial debut is brimming with intelligence and good ideas, but its downbeat subject matter and grim setting in a suburban New Jersey town will make it a tough sell for distributors. The fact that Gardener Of Eden is the first feature from Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way production company might entice buyers to take the risk, but otherwise there is not enough novelty here to distinguish a low-budget US independent in today's brutally crowded distribution marketplace, domestically and especially overseas.

The concept here is a fascinating one - a young slacker decides to become a real-life vigilante superhero and clean up his crime-addled town - but the execution is tonally diffuse, veering from whimsy and ethnic humour to moments of dark Batman-esque fantasy to the gritty, urban realism of Mean Streets or A Guide To Recognising Your Saints.

A bit more experimentation with comic book tradition and less of the dreary contemporary misery might have marked the film out from the conventional Tribeca/Sundance crowd.

The film kicks off with a fast and entertaining pace as 25 year-old Jersey boy Adam Harris (Haas) narrates his upbringing as the son of a depressed Vietnam war veteran in Jersey.

He's a smart boy - in the top 11 percentile of his high school graduation class, no less - but after being thrown out of college in New York City for hiring prostitutes, he goes back to live with his parents and work in a local deli. He hangs out with a gaggle of unambitious friends (Ferrara, Abrahams, Parsons) whose lives revolve around beer and girls.

One day, he witnesses an old woman customer being run over and is deeply affected by her violent death, going so far as to collect some of her brain from the accident site. He even attends her funeral and spies her beautiful niece Mona Huxley (Christensen).

When he is fired from his job, his mother throws him out of the house and he goes to a bar to get drunk. On his way home, he determines to get into a fight and beat up the next male passerby. When he does so, Adam inadvertently become a hero since the man he viciously attacked is a wanted serial rapist, just leaving the scene of his latest crime - the rape of Mona Huxley.

His proud parents take him back and he is presented with the reward money, but the incident principally awakens him a desire to bring law and order to the town. Unwilling to undertake police training, he decides to become a real hero, patrolling the streets at night looking to stop crime.

He embarks on a rigorous fitness and body-building regime, persuades his father to teach him combat techniques and determines to prevent bad things happening to good people.

Adam's newfound self-discipline and self-righteousness are met with resentment by his friends who buy drugs from the local dealer Vic (Ribisi). But he has other fish to fry, traveling the Manhattan subway system by night with his father's gun and wooing Mona.

However, his Good Samaritan acts start to blur the lines between right and wrong. He accidentally kills a purse-snatcher in New York City and his determination to rid the town of Vic leads to a vicious fist fight and Vic's assertion that Adam's father is one of his biggest clients. The film's final act sees Adam turn vigilante against Mona's rapist and cross the moral line for good.

Framed by comic-book images and narrated by Adam throughout, the film has intriguing hints of a new Death Wish, the saga of a self-appointed moral avenger in American suburbia, but Connolly and screenwriter Adam 'Tex' Davis get bogged down in the ennui of the disaffected youths on show, as if insisting on bringing their own growing-up experiences to bear on the story.

Still, Haas is never less than compelling as Adam. The young actor, who has never risen to the heights of his friend and producer DiCaprio, reveals adult leading man presence here belying his still-youthful looks, and brings an honesty and instability to Adam Harris which keeps the character intriguing.

Prod companies/backers
Appian Way
The 7th Floor
Virtual Studios
Initial Entertainment Group

Worldwide sales
Initial Entertainment Group

Leonardo DiCaprio
Brad Simpson
Allen Bain

Executive producers
Graham King
Jesse Scolaro
Darren Goldberg
Lemore Syvan

Adam 'Tex' Davis

Lisa Rinzler

Production design
Happy Massee

Pete Beaudreau
Michael Berenbaum

Paul Haslinger

Main cast
Lukas Haas
Erika Christensen
Giovanni Ribisi
Jerry Ferrara
Jon Abrahams
Jim Parsons
David Patrick Kelly