It's not hard to understand why Brick grabbed the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. In his riveting first feature (six years in assembling), Rian Johnson has wittily transplanted a hard-boiled noir mystery into fresh territory: a modern-day Southern California neighborhood and high school. This conceit could have been simply a one-joke gimmick. Instead, Brick, shot in color in San Clemente, California, and anchored by hot Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an innovative ride that carries the viewer into a world familiar from genre films and the novels of Dashiell Hammett, yet quite unlike anything we've seen before.

The set-up revolves around a quest. Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt), a tough loner who knows all the angles, receives a plea for help from old girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Shortly after, she vanishes. Brendan, who still has feelings for the troubled Em, is determined to discover her fate. He's aided in his search by The Brain (Matt O'Leary), a geek with Coke-bottle glasses, who dispenses cryptic clues while hunkered down on the pavement against a school wall. Eventually Brendan-fearless even when confronting drug-fueled bruisers-penetrates the inner circle of The Pin (Lukas Haas), a club-footed dude with a swan-headed cane, who's in heroin instead of college. (Amusingly, The Pin operates out of a cheesy tract house, where his mom serves the guys fruit and cookies when they emerge from the basement.) Brendan uncovers some dark truths about Emily, and closes in on her assailant.

The film's early moments, before you get with the program, verge dangerously on ludicrous: When do these kids study calculus? Plus the dialogue might as well be Greek-the press notes include a glossary; subtitles would be preferable. The convoluted plot, peppered with time shifts and double-crosses, is hard to follow. (Syriana, anyone?) Recent filmmakers seem to think it's cool to present stories resembling codes that the viewer must crack, maybe in emulation of Christopher Nolan's Memento.

That said, Brick brilliantly succeeds on its own weird terms. Much of the credit belongs to Gordon-Levitt's myopic gumshoe, who walks with a neo-Jimmy Cagney gait, and uncorks the lingo without ever breaking faith with the material ("What are you doing here?" Brendan: "Leaving."). Nora Zehetner as the femme fatale is silkily dangerous, and de Ravin a haunting little girl lost. Taking visual cues from Chinatown, gifted DP Steve Yedlin favors shots from below, and stark under-populated exteriors that convey menace even in California sunshine. The score, seemingly culled from a thousand noir thrillers, creates a broken-down junkyard sound to echo off Rian's characters. Along with its novelty, Brick works as a stunning ensemble piece, all its elements in sync. Here's a case where a long gestation paid off handsomely. But maybe Gordon-Levitt, with his noir cred in place, should try a romantic comedy next.

-Erica Abeel