Writer and director Zack Winestine's feature debut, States of Control, is a carefully crafted study of an aspiring writer who finds herself increasingly cut off from reality. Despite a meticulous production and sensitive performances, the film is sabotaged by a cryptic screenplay that is by turns pretentious and indecipherable. Even by low-budget, indie standards, this is an unusually claustrophobic, self-absorbed work whose commercial prospects are bleak.

Lisa (Jennifer van Dyck) is married to Abel (Stephen Bogardus), a teacher who is impotent. Sexually unfulfilled, Lisa spends sleepless nights scribbling in her journal. When not endlessly revising drafts of a novel, she experiments by sticking her finger in live electrical sockets. During the day, she works for a small theatrical company, where her friend Carol (Ellen Greene) has won a part in a new play by Alex (Stephen Gevedon).

Paul (John Cunningham), an autocratic director, is hired for the play. He takes Lisa under his wing, teaching her about Indian food and criticizing her writing. Alex hints at a scandal in Paul's past involving the suicide of a former lover. When Lisa tries to find out more about Paul, a self-professed mediocre failure, he reveals a personal morality based on 'passionate commitment,' not right and wrong.

Searching for an 'authentic experience,' Lisa frequents an X-rated video store. But pornography only depresses her. After failing to involve Lisa in a threesome with a boy she has picked up in a bar, Carol draws on her background as a guerrilla in Nicaragua to teach her how to use guns and build bombs.

In a strange series of coincidences, Lisa's friends depart for Los Angeles. Even Abel finds a job there. After an unsatisfying sexual encounter with Paul, Lisa sets out to make a statement. She plants a bomb in the X-rated video store, steals a car, and heads for the wilderness of Harriman State Park to live off the land.

Van Dyck is an appealing performer, but watching someone disintegrate into insanity is almost never entertaining. Van Dyck does find ways to ground Lisa's character in behavior that is at least recognizable, if not entirely credible. Still, the script leaves too many unanswered questions about her role. For that matter, none of the other roles makes much sense either. Ellen Greene brings some personality to her bit as a theatrical actress, amateur pornographic photographer, and former munitions expert with the Sandinistas, but it's doubtful that anyone could make the part work. The other performers, while enthusiastic, are generally left hanging by screenwriter Winestine's tenuous grasp of psychology. The far-fetched characterizations only emphasize how stiff and clunky dialogue is, while the mannered line readings tend to slow the film to a crawl. Narrowly focused, and just as narrowly argued, States of Control will be of little interest to mainstream filmgoers.

--Daniel Eagan