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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Garden Party": Actor rises above garden-variety material

Movie review: Jason Freeland's "Garden Party" provides a solid showcase for Erik Scott Smith, playing a seemingly casual drifter. He demonstrates an intensity that tends to overwhelm and sometimes crush the flimsy script about making L.A. connections.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

"Garden Party," with Erik Scott Smith, Vinessa Shaw, Richard Gunn, Alexander Cendese, Willa Holland. Written and directed by Jason Freeland. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity, drug content, language and sexual situations). Varsity.

Decades ago, the major studios used to try out their younger contract players in movies so threadbare that they became survival tests. Vehicles like "A Private's Affair," "Parrish" and "Mardi Gras" would inevitably flush out the less-charismatic actors and theoretically prove the mettle of those who survived. Barry Coe, Christine Carère and Diane McBain (where are they now?) may have ended up among the casualties, but occasionally a fresh talent (Sylvia Miles, Madeleine Sherwood) would turn up.

Contract players are a thing of the past, but there's no shortage of flimsy vehicles, even on the American independent film scene. Case in point: "Garden Party," which recently sailed through the Seattle International Film Festival without making many waves. It did, however, provide a solid showcase for one young actor.

Erik Scott Smith, who was uncannily convincing as the teenage Colin Farrell in "A Home at the End of the World," snagged the best role: Sammy, a seemingly casual Los Angeles singer-songwriter who sleeps with anyone who helps him.

When he rocks out with Ricky Nelson's early-1970s hit "Garden Party," Smith demonstrates an intensity that tends to overwhelm and sometimes crush writer-director Jason Freeland's script, which impresses most when it refuses to go where you expect it to go.

Time after time, Freeland sets up a situation that seems headed in a familiar direction, then he dashes your lowered expectations. Sammy, set up to take advantage of Nathan (Alexander Cendese), the trusting, transplanted country boy who wants him, makes unpredictability seem like the essence of charm.

As Woody Allen once said, bisexuality doubles your chances on a Saturday night. It also helps Sammy to make enough connections to keep "Garden Party" relatively interesting and to further the character's career hopes.

Unfortunately, Freeland is equally attached to several duller characters: a dope-dealing real-estate agent (Vinessa Shaw); her new partner (Richard Gunn); and teenage April (Willa Holland), who's trying to get away from her lecherous stepfather. Whenever they're front and center, "Garden Party" is just another contract-player time-killer.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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