The narrating "Me" of Steal Me announces at the outset of his movie that he has always been a thief and had, at the age of eight, amassed 28 counts of grand theft. Thus, it's no surprise that when we meet teenage Jake (Danny Alexander), his hand's in the candy jar, swiping a radio from the car of the blonder and more benign Tucker (Hunter Parrish).

A scuffle ensues, followed by-of all things-a friendship which ushers Jake straight through the front door of Tucker's family home, or at least through the barn door, since Tucker's mom (Cara Seymour) harbors genuine (and quite justified) doubts about the boy's trustworthiness and insists he sleep in the barn-as if that'd stop his thieving ways.

What we have here is a bucolic transfer of Peter Shaffer's play and film, Five Finger Exercise, in which a sex-charged stranger moves in with a family and systematically upends them, member by member. The wide-open spaces of a majestically rural Montana are knotted in nothing flat by the heavy emotional weight that Jake has brought with him. It seems he's riding the rails hither and yon in search of his runaway, wayward mother-or, as it anguishedly plays out, a reasonably sympathetic facsimile like, say, Tucker's mother. That rash course of action drives an irreparable wedge between the two pals, sending Tucker into an Oedipal rage and Jake onto the next train out of town.

Prior to that bumpy exit, the buds gather their share of rosebuds, Jake leading the way for the uninitiated Tucker, introducing him to the joys of available sex and some good little actresses as well-Toby Poser as a wonderfully frontal and wise single mom who won't let Jake go to her head, and Paz de la Huerta, who relieves Tucker of his innocent shine.

It's a rather modest drama that director Melissa Painter has written, and what emotional tension there is evaporates into the dwarfing scenery that Paul Ryan has lovingly lensed. Her best achievement is the way she skillfully manipulates her almost-known cast into complicated characters that you can care about. There are ragged edges to the acting, to be sure, but it plays persuasively in the gradual unwinding of this rather frayed storyline.

Seymour, a New York actress whose used-blonde beauty is reminiscent of early Shirley Knight, has the toughest tightrope to walk as the overlapping mother figure, but she executes it responsibly and realistically. There's a marvelous little showdown shouting match between her and the film's other top actress, Poser, over the corruption of Jake. John Terry nicely underplays the underwritten part of the titular head of the household, a generous-hearted good-ole-boy type who doesn't unduly get in anybody's way.

Alexander somewhat lacks the drive and charisma needed to keep the plot churning interestingly, but again Painter has presented him in a way that minimizes his unseasoned shortcomings. She saves her subtle brushstrokes for the more passive of the two leads, Parrish, who is quietly compelling as a virginal youth stumbling clumsily into adulthood.

Despite the title and the tilted set-up, Steal Me may really be Parish's film. Seconding that motion: When it was shown last April at the Method Fest Independent Film Festival in Calabasas, Painter picked up the Best Director prize and Parrish was voted Best Actor. His career has subsequently sprouted into Showtime's "Weeds."

-Harry Haun