Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the offspring of celebrities and industry figures, or their wealthy friends and associates, can attest to the painful accuracy of Catherine Jelski's bleakly perceptive "The Young Unknowns," inspired by the stage play "Magic Afternoon" by Wolfgang Bauer. (Neither title quite fits.) It is a harrowing experience, anchored by the solid portrayal by young Devon Gummersall.
Gummersall's Charlie Fox is the 23-year-old son of a busy, London-based commercials director who is on his third wife and fourth child. Charlie has maxed out his credit cards to make a "spec spot," with which he hopes to launch his own career. He proclaims himself a "happening" director to his girlfriend, Paloma (Arly Jover), a production coordinator, and wonders if that's the only reason she's with him.
He has reason to doubt. Paloma is a sophisticated, goddess-like Spanish beauty who would certainly not be the first lovely woman in Beverly Hills to hook up with the emotionally immature and not notably handsome son of a movie or TV big shot. However, the sympathetic way in which Paloma is presented suggests that, even though she's just about fed up with the obnoxious Charlie, she apparently actually has cared for him. It's the film's most serious drawback that Jelski never really establishes why Paloma would ever become involved with such a jerk, even if he does exhibit rare tender moments; perhaps he elicits maternal feelings in her.
His own mother is at the heart of Charlie's problems. An alcoholic who deserted the family when he was 12 and has moved on to many places and men, she is the one woman Charlie believes ever loved him, and he remains hurt and angry at her departure. He cannot, however, accept that he is but a gofer for his glibly manipulative father. Charlie lives alone in his father's L.A. house, a slightly rundown and under-furnished but expensive '60s residence that in fact was the notorious Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss' estate, equipped with 128 phone lines.
In the course of the film's 24 hours -- or perhaps it's 36 -- Charlie will be required to act like an adult for the first time in his life. When his crazed, misogynistic pal Joe (Eion Bailey) arrives ready to party with a blond model, Cassandra (Leslie Bibb), Charlie's story begins in earnest.
Jelski is a skilled filmmaker, and her sense of reality is so uncompromising that, even when tempered by a touch of dark humor, her film is a grim, hard-to-take business. Many will understandably not see much point in sitting through "The Young Unknowns," but some will experience a surprisingly compelling sense of recognition in these people who seem dismally pathetic when they're not otherwise off-putting.
It is in fact possible to come away from the film with admiration for the degree of understanding and compassion Jelski has managed to bring to them, the self-deluding Charlie in particular.
'The Young Unknowns'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Language, some violence, pervasive heavy substance abuse
Devon Gummersall ... Charlie Fox
Arly Jover ... Paloma
Leslie Bibb ... Cassandra
Eion Bailey ... Joe
Simon Templeman ... Voice of Sebastian Fox
An Indican Pictures release of a Wit's End production. Director Catherine Jelski, Producers Catherine Jelski, Eric M. Klein, Kimberley Shane O'Hara. Screenplay Catherine Jelski; inspired by the Wolfgang Bauer play "Magic Afternoon." Cinematographer-editor Gabor Szitanyi. Music supervisors Rich Dickerson, Sandy Tanaka, Sheli Zahnley. Costumes Merrie Lawson. House interior designer Warren Alan Young. Art directors Lisa Hope, Laura Branosky. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In selected theaters.