Dir: Matthew Ryan Hoge. US. 2003. 108mins.

First-time director Matthew Ryan Hoge delivers a highly questionable first feature in Sundance dramatic competition entry The United States Of Leland, a star-studded independent ensemble about upset affluent people which comes close to being offhand in its treatment of the murder of an autistic child. Stylistically it imitates American Beauty, whose Oscar-winning star Kevin Spacey produced and stars in it, but in its quest to say something profound about contemporary life, it falls way off the mark.

Paramount Classics bought North American rights after the Sundance screenings and, as a portrait of earnest suburbanites in pain as acted out by a strong cast, it could deliver some specialised domestic business. Internationally, however, critics will not buy it and upscale audiences will not defy them by paying to see it. Only on TV, video and DVD could the stellar cast reap benefits.

Leland Fitzgerald (Gosling) is a teenager from a deeply dysfunctional LA family - a famous novelist father (Spacey) who has emigrated to Paris and a mother (Olin) who can not get over the divorce. He is not having too much luck in the love department either, having just been dumped by his girlfriend Becky (Malone) in favour of her drug dealer. So what does he do' He kills Becky's autistic brother in the local park - and it is not just an impulsive act either: he stabs him no fewer than 17 times. When questioned by the police why he did it, all he can say is "Because of the sadness."

It is up to his persistent, self-interested teacher at the juvenile detention centre (Cheadle) to uncover specifically what this "sadness" is in a series of interviews with Leland. Meanwhile the dead boy's family (Donovan and Magnuson, Malone, Williams) and Williams' boyfriend (Klein), who mysteriously lives in with them, handle their grief in their own different ways.

If it were an attempt to look at the effects of tragedy a la In The Bedroom or The Son's Room, The United States Of Leland might just have succeeded as a miserable family saga like Moonlight Mile. But Hoge is interested chiefly with his troubled killer Leland and imbues him with such dopey sanctimony - somewhere between Jesus Christ and Forrest Gump - that the audience is clearly meant to understand his actions and empathise with his suffering.

That is hard, not just because his crime was monstrous and his motives are so absurd, but also because the interviews reveal such implausible turns of event such as the existence of a secret "mother" figure (Fenn) in New York City . Of course, this being a moral fable, Hoge does not allow Leland/Jesus/Forrest to survive his atrocious crime and he does not make it alive through to the final credits.

It is unlikely that audiences will wish to embrace another story about grieving and family strife - even with Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon in the lead roles, Moonlight Mile had a hard time scraping past $10m in worldwide box office receipts. Perhaps that means they will respond to one which makes only sporadic attempts to capture authentic human behaviour on screen, in which case Leland could make waves.

Prod cos: Thousand Words, Trigger Street Productions
US dist: Paramount Classics
Int'l sales: MDP Worldwide
Exec prods:
Mark Damon, Sammy Lee, Stewart Hall
Spacey, Bernie Morris, Palmer West & Jonah Smith
Matthew Ryan Hoge
James Glennon
Prod des:
Edward T McAvoy
Jeff Betancourt
Jeremy Enigk
Main cast:
Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Spacey, Michelle Williams, Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson, Kerry Washington, Sherilyn Fenn