A staple on the festival circuit following its 1995 Sundance premiere, John G. Young's debut feature Parallel Sons garnered its share of Best Film honors, among them Outfest's Grand Jury Award and Audience Awards from the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the Florida Film Festival. And it's a good thing. The small-scale indie is going to need all the help it can get when it's exposed to the harsh realities of the commercial arena.

The gay-themed, rural drama has to its credit some effective dramatic moments, solid leading performances, and an impressive visual look that belies its $80,000 budget. Ultimately, however, Parallel Sons falls victim to the nearly toxic level of small-town, teen alienation that fuels its narrative. The movie is simply too adolescently overwrought to sit well with late '90s audiences, gay or otherwise.

The seething protagonist of Parallel Sons is Seth (Gabriel Mick), a college-age kid who's determined to get away from the tiny, upstate New York village in which he's been stuck since birth. Frustrated by the narrowness of the townspeople and the refusal of his blue-collar, widower father to send him to art school in New York, Seth expresses his individuality by immersing himself in African-American street culture, no easy task in an all-white community. He wears his long hair in dreadlocks, listens to rap music, peppers his vocabulary with hip-hop slang, and spray-paints murals all over the countryside. Seth's only friend is the equally alienated Kristen (Heather Gottlieb), the sheriff's daughter. Before she leaves for college, Heather clearly intends to get Seth into bed, which raises an issue the boy isn't ready to confront-namely, that he's gay.

Seth's outlook changes the moment a gun-wielding, wounded, young black man with the improbable name of Knowledge (Laurence Mason) bursts into the empty diner where Seth works, in search of money and food. More intrigued than fearful, Seth has heard that a prisoner has escaped from the minimum-security prison camp just outside of town. When, mid-robbery, Knowledge passes out, Seth wastes no time moving the unconscious fugitive to his family's cabin in the woods. As Seth nurses the initially hostile Knowledge back to health, the two young men begin to bond. By the time the jealous Kristen finds Knowledge at Seth's cabin, puts two and two together, and goes running to her father, the two men have fallen in love. Seth proves to be even more of a loose cannon than he appeared, and the results are tragic.

Structurally and in its physical production, Parallel Sons is a fine example of naturalistic filmmaking: The story is carefully told, the character motivations clear, the settings realistic. What makes the movie both grating and wearing is its lack of authorial distance, its tendency to confirm its immature protagonist's feverish world view. Seth's father and the sheriff, for example, are played as exactly the caricatured, smug yahoos Seth believes them to be.

Given the difficulties inherent in the role, Mick (the upcoming High Art) does an admirable job as Seth, lending the character consistency and weight, and Mason (The Crow, True Romance) successfully traverses Knowledge's dramatic arc from gun-toting hysteric to tragic lover. The supporting cast is uneven, but not distracting.

The best work in Parallel Sons is that of d.p. Matthew M. Howe (Desolation Angels), whose crystal-clear, well-composed images, especially in the film's latter, outdoor sequences, add immeasurely to the film's impact. That writer/director Young can tell a story is evident. Despite its problems, his first feature shows promise.

--Bob Satuloff