Striking and self-indulgent in equal measure, Cam Archer's first feature, "Wild Tigers I Have Known," is an impressive declaration of talent that nonetheless gets a little drunk and disorderly at the trough of High Art. Arresting visual and sonic textures frequently overwhelm sketchy narrative, leaving surface provocation too seldom ballasted by deeper psychological truths or emotional impact. Tale of a 13-year-old boy acting out his awakening sexual impulses in outre ways will no doubt make waves on the fest (especially gay fest) circuit, with arthouse prospects modest but viable. Trimming 10 minutes or so wouldn't hurt.
Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) is a middle schooler who, like his only friend Joey (Max Paradise), remains childlike in appearance and manner while other classmates rapidly develop toward adulthood. Science nerd Joey worries they don't get noticed by girls -- though that's hardly a concern for Logan. He's fixated on lanky, handsome ninth- grader, Rodeo (Patrick White), who shares his loathing of bullies and lets the kid hang out with him on long walks in the surrounding woods. (Pic was shot in Santa Cruz, Calif.)
Increasingly fantasizing and pining over the ambiguously motivated Rodeo, Logan invents a female vocal persona, and as "Leah" makes erotic phone calls to his crush at night. He also begins experimenting with cross-dressing, stealing wigs and make-up from his single, and conspicuously young, mom (Fairuza Balk).
Logan's behaviors are so excessively precocious, even dangerous at times, that they defy credence. But then "Wild Tigers" -- the title derives from the protag's obsession with the mountain lions that are beginning to stray into peopled areas locally -- operates at least as much in the realms of poetical reverie and metaphor as it does pubescent psychodrama. Those elements are a frequently awkward mix.
Working again with Aaron Platt, who shot both his prior Sundance-screened shorts, Archer leaves no moment out of an oft-gorgeous if borderline suffocating aestheticism. Clearly indebted to Gus Van Sant (an exec producer here), Christopher Munch, various experimental filmmakers and contempo visual artists, the director keeps eye and ear dazzled, but head and heart left unattended. Sacrificing these moments for a tighter edit could only improve overall impact.
Perfs, divided between the naturalistic, cartoonish and detached, are acceptable. All highly worked design contribs are impressive; it's easy to imagine "Wild Tigers" serving just as well (if not better) as a coffee table book of stills or gallery installation with sound collage. At age 24, Archer can't be faulted for flaunting his influences and textural facility. Still, this feature is so promising and frustrating, it's hard not to anticipate the results when discipline and depth are equally present.
Camera (color, HD), Aaron Platt; music/sound designer, Nate Archer; production designer, Thecla Niebel; set decorators, Niebel, Jessica Carter; costume designer, Stephanie Volkmar; assistant director, Nick Case; casting, Julia Kim. Reviewed at Sundance Film Fest (Frontier), Jan. 24, 2006. Running time: 98 MIN.