Based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel, The Rules of Attraction paints a highly diverting, kaleidoscopic picture of those oh-so horny and confused college days of the '80s. At Camden College, some serious shit revolves around egomaniacal Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a drug dealer who has nailed nearly every girl on campus. Technical virgin Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) is trying to save herself for her boyfriend, Victor (Kip Pardue), who's backpacking across Europe. Bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder) used to date her, but is now in love with Sean. Lauren also loves Sean, while her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) loves just about anything in pants. This highly uncertain romantic roundelay is acted out with a mixture of slacker apathy and fleeting intensity which, thanks to writer-director Roger Avary's deft, highly original touch, is nothing short of riveting.

The scary, rhapsodic, horrendously narcissistic and ultra-transient time that is college has rarely been captured more effectively than here. The sheer, sexy vividness and brutality of kegger parties, raves and life-scarring hallway encounters is presented with an in-your-face cinematic empathy that is, in itself, an impressive feat. Avary's technique is tricky in the extreme, filled with digital effects, flashbacks, stop-time, fast-motion and skewed angles and editing, which add a layered richness to the fumbling, uncertain bonding that goes on between these characters. His complex direction is a perfect match for the consumer overload of Ellis' super-self-conscious, mordant-to-a-fault style. Things reach an apotheosis with Sean's first, haphazard meeting with Lauren by the use of a split-screen that wickedly conveys both their unbridgeable psychological distance and inevitable attraction. Late in the game, Avary throws a thrilling filmic coup into the mix with a dizzyingly fast account of the heretofore-unseen Victor's European odyssey that is brilliantly definitive. The music, of course, is an integral character, as well.

The sexy cast give their all. Van Der Beek, while smarmily effective, attacks his anti-hero role with almost too much bravado. (In a millennial update of Brando's once-revolutionary armpit scratching and sweat, the determinedly sleazy Van Der Beek pauses for a lengthy examination of his used toilet paper.) Far more nuanced is Sossamon's heartbreaking performance, an uncanny blend of fragile-fey and urchin-tough, marked by a feverish wit which often proves her undoing as much as her salvation. Somerhalder is exquisite in his aching state of unrequited lust, and has the funniest scene in the film: a wild reunion with an alcoholic gay childhood pal and their burnt-out, pill-popping moms (played by no less than Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway). Biel is a riot as the most unapologetic of coed ho's. Clifton Collins, Jr. has a literally high old, rip-roaring time as an irate dealer who's owed money by Sean. Eric Stoltz is perfectly cast, for once, as a libidinous old pro of a prof.

-David Noh