Dir: Laurent Cantet. France. 1999. 100 mins.

Prod Co: A La Sept Arte/Haut et Court production with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie, Procirep, BBC Films. Int'l Sales: Celluloid Dreams. US sales: Menemsha Entertainment. Prods: Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta. Exec Prod: Barbara Letellier. Scr: Laurent Cantet, Gilles Marchand. DoPs: Matthieu Poirot Delpech, Claire Caroff. Ed: Robin Campillo. Art Dir: Romain Denis. Costume Des: Marie Cesari. Main Cast: Jalil Lespert, Jean-Claude Vallod, Chantal Barre, Veronique de Pandelaere, Michel Begnez, Lucien Longueville, Danielle Melador.

One of the few unequivocal stand-outs at this year's Sundance, and indeed every other international film festival this past year where it has won awards and stirred audiences with its rare compassion, Human Resources is a small masterpiece of social realism that stands easy comparison with the best of Ken Loach.

Cantet, in his first feature-length turn behind the camera, deployed only one professional actor (Jalil Lespert) to tell this human drama, filling out the rest of the cast with amateurs whose blue collar lives mirrored those in the film. The unadorned naturalism and the quiet simplicity of the direction only makes the finale that much more heartrending.

Lespert plays the business school graduate who returns from Paris to assume an internship in the personnel department at the metal-plant where his father has toiled all his life on the assembly line. Full of naive idealism, this young hotshot believes he can help management push through a shorter working week by involving the factory floor in the decision. To his horror his mediation becomes the decoy for laying off workers - including his own father. By film's end, both father and son are reunited on the picket lines outside those factory gates, but the generational and societal schism between them now is probably too great to bridge.

Only a couple of years ago, this searing French-language film would have been fought over by the leading US distribution specialists, whose acquisition eyes were trained on unearthing artful gems rather than middle-brow sub-studio fare with instant poster appeal and obvious youth cachet. Unfortunately, in these Darwinian days, the intricacies of class warfare and moral responsibility are not subjects that endear themselves to marketing mavens looking for a fast return on their release costs.

Outside France, where Cantet's flawless debut has already been something of an art-house hit, Human Resources will hinge on the resourcefulness of theatrical boutiques in filling the house. Once those movie-goers have been lured in though, those distributors know that only the most hardened is likely to leave unaffected.

Human Resources is screening as part of "New Directors/New Films", the annual discovery festival in New York, now in its 29th year and currently running.