It's never difficult to pick first-time lovers out of a crowd. They're the pair that seem lost in their own private universe, moving through day-to-day life permanently joined at the hand (and often mouth), all the while oblivious to the fact that they share the planet with other people. The only thing these lovers are able to see is each other.

As corny as it sounds, ask anyone about their first experiences with love and this is the kind of description you're likely to hear. If you manage to stay attentive without gagging, you'll probably be treated to a postscript explaining how the relationship eventually soured, losing its magic little by little before finally collapsing. If there's one thing Jesse Peretz's film, First Love, Last Rites, does well, it's to capture this roller-coaster ride of emotions that accompanies a first love affair. Unfortunately, watching the film is an experience more akin to being trapped in a dying relationship: lifeless, painful and unbearably dull.

Based on a short story by Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites tracks the relationship between first-time lovers Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner), from its glorious beginning to its eventual deterioration. The film opens on the first of many bouts of passionate sex that the couple engage in whenever things get dull, which happens pretty often in the bayous of Louisiana, where Peretz has chosen to set the story. (McEwan's original version took place in England.) We learn a little about the characters. Joey is a Brooklyn native who has left his home for Louisiana. Why? Who knows? Maybe he was kicked out of the borough for not developing an accent. Sissel, meanwhile, comes from a broken family. Her mother and father have split up for unspecified reasons, although it might have something to do with the fact that Henry (Robert John Burke), her dad, occasionally does weird things like driving his car in and out of their driveway repeatedly. Henry finds a friend in Joey and together they decide to enter the supposedly lucrative eel industry. ('The Vietnamese love 'em,' the father says, showing how far the South has advanced in cultural sensitivity.) Oh, and there's also a subplot about a large rat scratching on the wall of the lovers' apartment, threatening to burst through at any minute.

Because nothing happens in the film, you're given plenty of time to ponder its supposedly deeper meaning. Just in case you're not smart enough, though, Peretz makes the story's symbolism painfully obvious, beginning with the rat in the wall that represents Joey's doubts about his relationship with Sissel. No, does it really? Gosh, that must mean at the end of the film when he kills the rat (whoops, I just gave away the climax), he's really destroying his personal fears! How meaningful! And I'm not even going to begin to analyze Joey's fascination with eels. (The Brooklyn accent obviously isn't the only thing he's missing.)

Despite the film's shallowness, Peretz displays a strong eye for the camera. He has designed some very nice shots and his interesting use of color highlights his background in music-videos. The script also has its moments, particularly in the conversations between Joey and Henry. (Henry's constant interrogations of his daughter's beau would have any young man quaking in his shoes.) What ultimately ruins First Love, Last Rites are the performances. As the young lovers, Ribisi and Wagner fail to generate a single spark of chemistry. The fault lies mainly with Ribisi, who gets my vote for the most annoying performance of the year (and that's bad considering I saw Spice World). His wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression can't be a turn-on for most women (at least I hope not), and each time he opens his mouth to utter another half-formed thought, you want to slap him until he says something intelligible, or at least finishes a sentence. Wagner has it a bit easier: Her character isn't supposed to do or say things that make sense. She's just there to moan sensually, make bizarre statements, and look pretty while boiling vinyl records (don't ask).

First Love, Last Rites is a good example of one of the major problems plaguing the independent film industry today-the wildly uneven talent of the filmmakers themselves. For every indie director who is able to integrate character, story and symbolism with strong visuals (i.e., Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles), there's one like Peretz who knows how to wield a camera, but has yet to learn the difference between engaging an audience with subtlety and boring them to tears.

--Ethan Alter