Dir: Ben Affleck. US. 2007. 114mins.
In Gone Baby Gone, an earnest but inexperienced young man plunges headfirst into deep waters, only to discover how much he still has to learn. That description could apply to the film's main character, a headstrong private detective hunting for a missing child, but it perhaps better describes the film's director, Ben Affleck. In this his, feature debut, he displays sensitivity to his story's thematic undercurrents - but hasn't yet developed the authorial voice necessary to enliven the narrative's conventional plotting.

This Miramax offering will open October 19 in the US, fighting for breathing room among the season's many Oscar-contending films. Gone Baby Gone is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the similarly-despairing Mystic River , later turned into a well-regarded drama by Clint Eastwood. Lehane's pedigree, Affleck's Oscar-winning cachet (for his script of Good Will Hunting), and positive reviews will have to make up for the fact that Affleck himself doesn't appear in the movie. With Affleck's brother Casey as Gone's star, the movie's advertisers could entice sober-minded adult viewers with the film's impressive collection of character actors in supporting roles, such as Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.

The film reaches international territories later in October. Again, reviews will be crucial for a movie whose Boston-specific locale may deter foreign audiences. (Two recent crime dramas set in Boston, Mystic River and The Departed, were helped enormously by marketable casts and, in the case of The Departed, a decent amount of action.) With Oscar nominations unlikely for this respectable but unremarkable film, ancillaries will probably be moderate as well.

Smitten lovers Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are a private-investigating team that mostly goes after deadbeats and debtors. But when they are hired to hunt for a missing 4-year-old named Amanda (Madeline O'Brien), they get pulled into a case that captures the interest of the Boston media and the local police, who don't want their interference. But Patrick's familiarity with the hardscrabble community where Amanda lived allows him to find clues that elude the authorities.

Because of its origins as a Dennis Lehane crime novel, Gone Baby Gone cannot help but be compared to Mystic River. Both films are set in Boston, deal with the city's working-class milieu, involve the abduction of children, and center on somber themes of honor, guilt, and family.

Ben Affleck, a Boston native, has a surer sense of the city's East Coast rhythms and manners of speaking than Eastwood possessed, and this helps early on when Gone Baby Gone examines the class divisions between Patrick and the lower-class individuals who have hired him to find their child. Affleck casually, but authoritatively, maps out this particular culture of drug abusers, petty criminals and bad parents with a minimum of local-colour stereotypes, demonstrating how Patrick still feels connected to his old neighborhood but also wants a better life for himself.

But once he's established this environment, Affleck proves himself to be far less capable with the other demands of storytelling. Patrick and Angie's investigation, which leads to several interviews with different neighbors of Amanda's family, seems reminiscent of the countless crime procedurals found on television, especially because Affleck adopts the same bone-dry realistic approach those programs (not to mention Mystic River) incorporate.

As the case becomes more convoluted, involving crooked cops and too many abrupt twists, Gone Baby Gone loses its most interesting human element: this naïve crime-fighting couple whose relationship's weaknesses are exposed by a heartbreaking search for an innocent girl who may never be found.

Only once the whodunit is finally resolved does the film briefly regains its footing, ending with a wonderfully understated last shot that suggests Affleck's potential at rendering emotionally complex situations in deceptively simple ways, a hallmark of old pros like Eastwood. But on the whole, his debut should be considered a mixed bag, filled with serious intent and strong individual moments, which never quite coheres into a fully compelling character drama or crime thriller.

Casey Affleck, perhaps best known for his comedic role as one of the wisecracking sidekicks in the Ocean's Eleven films, does good work playing a young PI with a chip on his shoulder. As with his dramatic turn in Gus Van Sant's Gerry, he manages to seem both childlike and mature at the same time, a crucial quality for a character trapped between his boyhood roots and the adult life he wants with his girlfriend.

Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, never shows the necessary grit. While Angie is meant to be less hardened than Patrick, Monaghan is too doe-eyed and brittle for a woman supposedly familiar with the darker aspects of human behavior.

The supporting performances are mostly solid, though Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris are drawing from an amalgam of many previous cop/boss roles, which only underlines how stock the film's mystery plot really is. But special notice should go to Amy Ryan who, as Amanda's drugged-out wreck of a mother, gives a performance that deftly illustrates how deeply flawed and unlikable her character is while at the same time provokes sympathy for her ever-optimistic belief that she'll someday turn herself around.

Production companies/backers
The Ladd Company

US distribution
Miramax Films

International distribution
Buena Vista

Alan Ladd, Jr.
Dan Rissner
Sean Bailey

Executive producer
David Crockett

Ben Affleck
Aaron Stockard
(based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)

John Toll

Production design
Sharon Seymour

William Goldenberg

Harry Gregson-Williams

Main cast
Casey Affleck
Michelle Monaghan
Morgan Freeman
Ed Harris
John Ashton
Amy Ryan
Amy Madigan
Titus Welliver