Chock full of ideas and almost ludicrously ambitious, The Delta, Ira Sachs' debut feature, tackles subject matter that has rarely been examined by American filmmakers. In a mere 85 minutes, Sachs explores sexual confusion, interethnic strife, the urban gay demimonde, genteel Southern racism, and the brutal legacy of the war in Vietnam. While the film's narrative edifice ultimately collapses from the weight of its own pretensions, Sachs's earnestness and cinematic flair cannot be ignored.

The Delta chronicles the unforseen consequences of one Memphis teenager's double life. Lincoln Bloom, the unprepossessing young protagonist, is a well-heeled and seemingly bland young man. But, before long, the film deftly establishes the disjunction between Lincoln's daylight world-his prim upper-middle-class Jewish family and his conventionally pretty blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend-and the nocturnal universe of older males yearning for companionship that he finds seductively appealing.

Schizophrenically careening from a quasi-documentary investigation of suburban ennui to near-operatic melodrama, The Delta is most convincing during its early sequences devoted to the affluent milieu that the director obviously knows best. One of the most effective scenes features an awkward family dinner at Lincoln's home: A few pungent lines and well-placed reaction shots illuminate these privileged whites' polite condescension toward their black servants.

Yet, in the final analysis, the film is preoccupied with Lincoln's compulsive desire to flee the claustrophobic, if comfortable, world of his parents and seek out forbidden pleasures. After a misbegotten tryst between Lincoln and a middle-aged tourist leaves both partners flustered, the film's central episode gradually unravels-an intense, and ultimately tragic, romance between the nominal hero and a lonely Vietnamese migr named Minh Nguyen who goes by the name of 'John.' This unlikely affair, furtively launched at a gay movie theatre and abruptly concluded when Lincoln realizes that events are spinning out of control, proves both intriguing and implausible. John, the son of an African-American G.I. he has never met, is little more than a cipher who must bear the burden of the film's heavy-handed message. After Lincoln abandons his new lover to return to the womb of his family and girlfriend, John picks up a young African-American man who, in a depressingly mechanical plot twist, becomes the victim of displaced rage. A film which began with an open-ended approach to narrative disappointingly congeals into a melodramatic and schematic parable.

Sachs, who favors languorous editing rhythms and a sparse use of dialogue, risks alienating his audience. The director's refusal to emulate slicker indies is certainly audacious, but some viewers will undoubtedly consider the film's experimental style self-indulgent and monotonous. Sachs seems more interested in evoking lyrical moments than in narrative or character development.The brilliantly atmospheric cinematography creates a hallucinatory ambience that concisely conveys the character's inner turmoil. Nevertheless, the accomplished visual style often triumphs at the expense of an underwritten script. In addition, the film's poetic flights of fancy are frequently sabotaged by mediocre acting and clumsy direction. Shayne Gray gives a competent performance as the reticent Lincoln, but Thang Chang's misguided portrayal of Minh Nguyen emphasizes the character's campy facade instead of his humanity.

Although Sachs cannot sustain the cinematic promise of The Delta's early sequences, his moral seriousness and technical finesse merit attention. There is little doubt that he has the ability to make equally provocative-and more polished-films.

--Richard Porton