If you thought Love Actually juggled a lot of storylines, wait till you get a look at InterMission, the low-budget Irish film that's been making the festival rounds. The feature debut of two Irish theatre figures, director John Crowley and playwright Mark O'Rowe, InterMission claims 11 plotlines and 54 speaking parts, and it's a tribute to the pair's skill that the audience is never lost. Everyone makes an impression in this extremely clever and often hilarious ensemble gem.

The unknowing fulcrum of the movie is supermarket stock boy John (Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later), who sets everything in motion when he suggests to sweet girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) that they take a break from their relationship. When Deirdre hooks up with married, middle-aged bank manager Sam (Michael McElhatton), the news drives John crazy with jealousy. Sam's abandoned wife Noeleen (Deirdre O'Kane), meanwhile, is persuaded to go out to a local dance bar, where she meets and goes home with John's insecure best friend Oscar (David Wilmot).

Sam and Deirdre are periodically harassed by John, but that's not the least of their problems. They're also being sized up by Lehiff (Colin Farrell), an amoral thief with plans for a kidnapping and robbery who winds up recruiting John and Mick (Brian F. O'Byrne), a bitter bus driver who's been fired in the wake of an accident caused by a rock-throwing brat no one else saw. The huge, intertwining cast of characters also includes Deirdre's sharp-tongued sister Sally (Shirley Henderson), who's in an emotional tailspin after a particularly ugly breakup; Jerry (Colm Meaney), a macho, egotistical detective who's after Lehiff and publicity in equal measure, and Ben (Tom O'Sullivan), an ambitious TV reporter who hooks up with Jerry.

While Love Actually did some heavy lifting to connect its wide-ranging plotlines, InterMission brings its many characters together with seeming effortlessness and no shortage of delightful, often rude, quintessentially Irish throwaway humor. "Is this a fil-um?" a lowlife asks Detective Jerry as Ben follows his rounds with a video camera. "F--kin' scumbag! It's a documentary!" Jerry barks in return. Even a seemingly insignificant funny detail like John's addiction to the brown sauce he once stole in quantity plays a key role in the story. The many threads crisscross in a darkly comic finale that leaves one character dead and a couple more pretty badly wounded.

O'Rowe's superb script clearly attracted some of today's top Irish acting talent. Marquee name Farrell is magnetic as ever in a thoroughly disreputable part (including a real shock in his first three minutes of screen time), while the piercingly blue-eyed Murphy brings a soulful quality to a fairly hapless character. Meaney (The Commitments) and O'Byrne are both hilarious as guys with useless chips on their shoulders, while Macdonald and O'Kane are charmingly feisty as the underappreciated women of the tale. Henderson, the ghostly Myrtle from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, nearly steals the film as the angry, morose Sally, whose slight moustache problem is the subject of much debate. She's well-matched with the appealing Wilmot, whose character lives in fear of impotence because "I can't get my fantasies clear in my head."

Though shot on handheld video, the movie's visual limitations never annoy, because its loose style seems so appropriate to its breathless narrative. (Editor Lucia Zucchetti's cross-cutting, however, is sometimes too brisk for the first-time viewer.) This genuine sleeper is proof that a small budget doesn't matter when you've got a terrific script and a great acting ensemble to bring it to life. --Kevin Lally