Dir/scr. Aaron Woodley. US. 2003. 92 min.

Rich in atmosphere, Rhinoceros Eyes is an impressive directorial debut on many levels. The film, which premiered at Toronto, won the festival's Discovery prize for developing filmmakers as selected by the press corps. But Woodley, who is also debuting as a screenwriter, doesn't have the script to match the film's visual flair. On a commercial level, this is a low-key comedy that rarely rises beyond amusing and never sets the pulse racing. The absence of a Toronto deal suggests buyers may have been looking for something with more bite. At best, a tour of the fantasy film festival circuit will set it up for a straight-to-video pick-up in North America.

The milieu is a prop shop, a dark, tumble-down warren of dusty gewgaws and mouldering thrones but also a pagan temple to the movies. Chep (Pitt) is to the prop shop as Peter Seller's Chance is to the garden in Being There. His sole point of reference is B-movie schlock, syrupy romances and monster horror flicks. The shop-owner (Servitto) tries his best to draw Chep out into the real world but he hasn't the heart to tell him that he plans on selling the place.

When an attractive set decorator comes to the shop in search of the city's only pair of rhinoceros eyes, Chep is twice-smitten: by Fran (Turco) and by her request. Indeed, the latter becomes Chep's quest, even though it means he must steal the eyes back from the production that is currently using them. But as he summons the courage to do the deed, his demons materialise - animated creatures formed from bits-and-bobs of his junk-filled imagination - to convince him that Fran should be his prize.

Woodley set himself a difficult task: his central character inhabits a space somewhere between a whacked-out slacker and an idiot savant, a cinematic nullity who requires sharply-drawn supporting characters to give him shape - as was the case with Chance in Being There.

Alas, the setting, which verges at times on the Lynchian, is more convincing than the actors. Pitt is most compelling when he's wearing a rubber mask while Turco delivers an air of urban sophistication that cancels the credibility of her role. It's hard to believe that Chep would be attracted to her but he's out-to-lunch so audiences will cut him slack. What is harder to believe is that Fran would want to come near him more than once.

Beyond this central story there is little to catch the eye. Servitto and Allodi do their best in limited roles; the dialogue meanders into repetition and the performances are sitcom standard. A ghoulish turn by veteran Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs as a homicidal grande dame is grotesque but without being unsettling. The animated props that bedevil Chep are amateurish, but this fits his addled brain; they're also underplayed, which is less satisfactory. In all, the film lacks the subtleties, the grace notes that lift a film to a higher level.

Prod co: Madstone Films
Int'l sales: ICM
Prods: Tom Gruenberg, Eva Kolodner, Daniel Hill, Jessica Levin
Cinematography: David Greene
Prod des: Karen Wilson
Ed: Robert Crossman, Julie Carr
Music: EC Woodley, John Cale
Main cast: Michael Pitt, Paige Turco, Gale Harold, Matt Servietto, Jim Allodi