Dir Todd Louiso. US 2002. 89mins.

Indie icon Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) renders yet another stellar performance in Todd Louiso's delicately directed Love Liza, elevating the film way above its narrow narrative scope and small-scale production. An actor vehicle, written specifically for Hoffman by his older brother Gordy, this darkly humorous story revolves around the inconsolable grief of a young widower after his wife's sudden, inexplicable suicide. With the right handling and sensitive marketing, this Sony Classic pick-up, which deservedly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at this year's Sundance, can become a must-see film not only for Hoffman's growing cult of worshippers but also for lovers of unconventional but well-executed independent films.

Arguably one of the most talented and unpresumptuous actors in American cinema today, Hoffman has built an uncanny career out of playing offbeat roles, be they frustrated losers (in Paul Thomas Anderson's aforementioned films) or awkward, often unappealing characters (in Todd Solondz's Happiness). Love Liza adds another honourable panel to Hoffman's gallery of American marginal types, yet the novelty here - and it's an important one - is that Hoffman gets to play the lead, rather than be second banana.

Hoffman is cast as Wilson Joel, a dishevelled website designer living in Middle America (the city is for some reason unidentifiable), who suddenly has to face the shocking news of his wife Liza's unexplained suicide. The only piece of evidence is a letter Liza left which Wilson refuses to open, despite his own curiosity and persistent requests from Mary Ann (superbly played by Kathy Bates), Liza's equally perplexed and brassy mother, who thinks the "truth" is contained in it.

Unable to come to terms with the event, Wilson turns to his mother-in-law for solace and support, but the undisclosed letter (which they both assume is a suicide note) continues to be a major source of conflict between them, and the growing tension separates them even more. In what turns out to be a mistake, Wilson decides to revisit the seaside resort where he and Liza spent their honeymoon.

Wilson then turns to an unusual form of escape, inhaling petrol fumes in gas stations, which puts him in touch with other freaks of his kind. It's to screenwriter Hoffman's credit that he depicts the desperate search for - and then addiction to - petrol in a darkly humorous way, although not in the broadly satirical manner seen in Alexander Payne's abortion farce, Citizen Ruth, in which Laura Dern resorts to the same tactic, albeit for different reasons.

The tale is structured as a serio-comic road picture once Wilson develops interest in the world of remote control models, specifically airplanes, which leads to a bizarre friendship with another plane enthusiast, Denny (Kehler), who's older than Wilson but still a child at heart. At first insensitive to each other's needs, the two gradually develop a mutually cherished camaraderie.

Although close to a one-man feature, the filmmakers add a number of secondary figures who pretend to care about Wilson but are actually motivated by self or greedy interests. Among them is Wilson's female co-worker, who courts him in the wrong way - and at the wrong time.

Love Liza could have easily escalate into a maudlin melodrama or broad comedy, but through deft writing and nuanced direction the film meets the challenge of navigating through various moods, while always showing respect for Wilson's grief and humanity, which he maintains even during the most desolate and desperate moments. In a remarkably non-judgmental and uncompromising manner, the filmmakers show the long process of grieving, the inevitable toll that loss takes on the immediate victim and his surroundings, and the undeniably human urge for a new sense of equilibrium, and better understanding of self and others.

A number of films, both American and foreign-language, have recently dealt with anguish and sorrow over the death of loved ones, such as Todd Field's In The Bedroom, Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room, Marc Foster's Monster's Ball and Ray Lawrence's Lantana. However, in contrast to those films, which show the impact of death on a marriage or a family, Love Liza is a sharply focused study of one individual, hence able to penetrate deeper into his psyche and soul. This strategy pays off in a shocking climax, in which the story's various elements come together beautifully.

Also deviating from other films about loss, Love Liza offers no easy solutions and no pat endings; the final image of Wilson will haunt viewers long after the film is over. Throughout, the film stresses effectively its central thesis, namely, the limitations of people, intimate or remote, to buoy the spirits of a person in acute distress.

Reportedly, Bates' role was initially written for a man, but fearing the allusion that Liza might have been abused by her father, and hence distort the story's dramatic focus, Gordy changed the gender, thus keeping the centre clearer without any excess baggage.

It's hard to imagine Love Liza without Hoffman, one of the most audacious and original actors of his generation, who delivers a turn of astonishing humility and compassion. All of Hoffman's performances have been so honest and raw that they make audiences cringe, forcing them to reflect on the awkward, often embarrassing facets of their own characters. Indeed, in Love Liza, even when Wilson's conduct is deranged and out of control, Hoffman never loses the audience's sympathy.

Pro co: Muse/Black List production
US dist: Sony Pictures Classics
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch
Exec prods: Alain de la Mata, Vincent Maraval, Daniel Guckau, Rainer Kolmel, Jim Czarnecki
Prods: Chris Hanley, Fernando Sulichin, Ruth Charny, Jeff Rota
Scr: Gordy Hoffman
Cinematographer: Lisa Rinzler
Prod des: Stephen Beatrice
Eds: Anne Stein, Katz
Music: Jim O'Rourke
Main cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Jack Kehler, Sarah Koskoff, Stephen Tobolowsky