Olivia Luccardi, Josh Caras and Paul Cooper in Paint (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Michael Walker
STARS Josh Caras, Olivia Luccardi

Whether it involves the writing of a novel, the staging of a play, or the painting of a portrait, movies that focus on the creative process often fall into a paint-by-numbers rut. Paint, on the other hand, does nothing by the numbers.

Written and directed by Michael Walker, Paint is a smartly constructed and strongly acted seriocomedy with the emphasis heavily on the comedy. It’s reminiscent of 2006’s Art School Confidential (from the Ghost World team of director Terry Zwigoff and scripter Daniel Clowes) in the manner in which it looks at the fears and foibles of aspiring artists who are just starting to make their way into the world, only to quickly learn that the footing is shaky and there’s no safety net if they fall.

Paint smoothly moves between the interlinked stories of three friends who have recently graduated from an NYC art school. Dan Pierson (Josh Cara) is already pushing himself to explore the dark side of art and, thus, the dark side of himself, and his brainstorm is to draw nudes of his mother Leslie (Amy Hargreaves). Kelsey Fricke (Olivia Luccardi) is trying to find success in the style of her artistic hero David Crays (David Patrick Kelly of “Warriors, come out to play-ay” fame) and is thrilled when she gets to not only meet him but subsequently sleep with him (never mind that he’s old enough to be her grandfather and everybody mistakes him for a homeless person). And Quinn Donahue (Paul Cooper) is happy to just float around in a bubble of self-satisfaction, proud to operate in the manner of the bohemian artists of yore.

Matters quickly become more complicated for all involved. Overcoming the Oedipal creep factor of the project, Leslie won’t pose naked in front of her son but will allow him to work from photographs of her in the buff. So Dan sends his best buddy Quinn to take the snapshots, not thinking about what could happen when a MILF and a strapping young man get together under intimate circumstances. In addition to having to keep his dalliance a secret from Dan, Quinn also has to accept the fact that his romantic, old-world views of the art community don’t really cut it in a modern society in which networking, self-promotion, and self-discipline are requisites.

Amy Hargreaves and Josh Caras

For her part, Kelsey is shocked to discover that a theft has taken place by somewhat she trusted. This incident, however, leads her to the door of influential art dealer Brett Wyzinski (Vince Nappo), who reluctantly agrees to promote her but also requires her to make some changes that will make it easier to plop her in front of prospective buyers. Looking over her grunge wardrobe, Brett cracks, “You know, there are whole sections of the vintage clothing store where they have clothes that haven’t been taken off the bodies of dead Iraqi soldiers.”

Brett Wyzinski is a great supporting character and a consummate comic foil, but he’s not the only one. I also enjoyed the character of Stephanie Buckland (Comfort Clinton), Dan’s girlfriend. Stephanie is beautiful, blonde, married, and wealthy, and I kept expecting the movie to predictably turn her into some sort of villain or, at the very least, an unreasonable shrew that Dan needs to dump ASAP. Instead, Stephanie remains calm and collected throughout, and she often provides the voice of reason that Dan needs to hear (but usually ignores). Then there’s the character of Dan’s mom, wonderfully played by Hargreaves. Her tête-à-tête with her son allows for a rainbow of emotions to play across her face, from revulsion to embarrassment to curiosity to, finally, willingness. The character continues to evolve from there, with some of Hargreaves’ best moments saved for the home stretch.

Not everything in Paint works. There’s a plotline involving Kelsey’s relationship with a millionaire (François Arnaud) who, according to Brett, can either be a boyfriend or a client but not both. This narrative thread is more clumsily presented than the rest — at any rate, Brett’s objections never convince since business and pleasure often commingle, and not always to deleterious effect. And the happy ending (for all but one character) might seem to lean too much on good vibrations, given the dark humor and cynical slant that has informed most of the picture.

Overall, though, Walker makes it easy to excuse the occasional narrative hiccup on the strength of his characters and particularly his dialogue. And when one layers on the scintillating performances of a game cast, it’s clear that here’s a picture that deserves a closer look.

(Paint is available on DVD and on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Vimeo, and other streaming platforms.)

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