Dir: Michael Kalesniko. US. 2000. 104 mins.

Prod co: Millennium Films, South Fork Pictures, Lonsdale Productions. International sales: Nu Image (310) 246 0240. Exec prod: Robert Redford. Prod: Michael Nozik, Nancy M. Ruff, Brad Weston. Scr: Kalesniko. DoP: Hubert Taczanowski. Prod des: Stephen Lineweaver. Ed: Pamela Martin. Mus: David Robbins. Main cast: Kenneth Branagh, Robin Wright Penn, Lynn Redgrave, Jared Harris, Suzi Hofrichter.

An accomplished first feature by Private Parts screenwriter Michael Kalesniko, this comedy has all the ingredients for a minor hit: a clever premise that delivers on its promise and an acerbic lead performance punctuated by terrific one-liners. Although the film has yet to secure US distribution - buyers may be stumbling over Kenneth Branagh's spotty box office as an actor outside his own productions - a trailer that accentuates the film's dark undertones and Branagh's bracing language could deliver a successful arthouse-style run. Certainly the title's dog killing reference minimises its mainstream appeal.

Peter (Branagh), a successful ex-pat Brit playwright living in LA, is desperately in need of a hit. The world thinks he's past it and he's beginning to think the world might be right. His latest play, currently in workshop, lacks authentic dialogue. As well, someone is wandering the neighbourhood pretending to be him and the dog next door is keeping him awake at night. To make matters worse, his wife (Wright Penn) is agitating for a baby despite his stated distaste for children. When an 8-year-old girl moves onto the block, he braces for the worst. But the two are slowly drawn together, proving him wrong about kids and providing him with authentic dialogue. It's a situation ripe for sentimental overkill but the script makes this coming together, and its break-up, plausible.

The script is impressive for its dramatic heft and several refreshing departures from the routine. For example, Wright Penn plays a celebrity's wife as a credible life partner rather than the standard shop-a-holic antagonist or long-suffering martyr. And child actor Suzi Hofrichter is a genuine find, especially in her scenes opposite Branagh.

Despite the many strands of action, no storyline is left to languish and all are efficiently brought together at the climax. Kalesniko keeps the pace right to the end - dead dog and all.