I have this… this planet of regret sitting on my shoulders.
–Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
For a film set mostly inside one character’s head, The Hottest State spends a lot of time on the road. The opening moments establish this idea, that William (Mark Webber) is restless and relentlessly mobile, in its through-the-windshield look out on the road. Under Willie Nelson’s definitively plaintive vocals (“If I came home tonight, / Would you still be my darling? / Or have I stayed away too long?”), William recalls how his parents met, or, as he puts it, “How the story was told to me.” A young man driving with his friends in small-town Texas meets a young woman; it’s as if she’s just waiting for his arrival. As his father begins to speak in William’s flashback, the son cuts in: “My mother didn’t need to hear the joke. She was already dead-bulls-eyed in love.” And with that, Jesse gets into Vince’s car. “Three weeks later,” says William, “I was conceived in the back of that Plymouth.”
While William, an actor, waxes nostalgic about his origins, the film cuts between “that Plymouth” and his own ride on a train. He’s headed back to Texas, though this plot point is revealed later. For now, you only know that William, like his father before him, is on the move. you also know that he frets about things that most movie guys don’t admit to fretting about, namely, girls. “I wondered about sex,” he says. “If sex was easier in Texas than it was in New York. I wondered about my father, about men in general, how they behaved around women.” The rest of Ethan Hawke’s film, based on his 1996 novel, considers the dimensions of that movement — how it is at once toward and away from himself, his girlfriend, and — predictably, most important — his father.
The girlfriend is Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a recent transplant to the city from Connecticut. An aspiring singer, she shows up in a scene just after you watch William watching a couple on the sidewalk. He’s in his apartment, looking down as they kiss on the stoop. It’s not quite creepy that he’s watching, but it does underscore that he does all that “wondering.” Spotting Sara at a bar, William attempts, awkwardly, to charm her with his detailed recollection of a Harry Mudd episode on Star Trek. When he wonders whether she speaks English, fearing that she’s not comprehending the particulars of his cleverness, the film raises crucial questions for the impending romance. While they feel a mutual attraction and sensibility (they’re both “nervous all the time”), they’re also pointedly unlike one another. Can William imagine Sara beyond his own needs? And is his imagining — however limited — a function of her “exotic” otherness?
To its credit, The Hottest State thematizes these questions, while not drawing specific attention to Sara’s background as such. When she brings him home to meet her mother (Sonia Braga), the most uncomfortable and strangest moments pertain to class expectations and resentments: Mrs. Garcia is disappointed that she’s worked two jobs to put Sara through college, only to have her unappreciative child decide to be a singer. “The world needs singers,” Sara asserts. “Your mother doesn’t,” answers Mrs. Garcia. Still, William proclaims his love in terms as exotic as he can conjure: “I have stood before God since the moment I met your daughter.” Mom remains skeptical: he smells like the old, rejected boyfriend and lacks a secure future, to boot.
These early stages of the romance are erratic, focused on William’s efforts to fathom his prize. And as his story becomes more oppressive — Sara eventually claims he’s too “intense” — hers becomes illegible. “I’m not so tough or interesting as you seem to think I am,” she says. “I’m more of a dork.” But William sees what he needs to see, attracted to her otherness even as it worries him. They share a magical week in Mexico, where he’s shooting Alfonso Cuarón’s film of Camino Royale, their perfect love reduced to a whirlwind of sex and shopping montages. “Mexico,” says William in his cryptic (self-deluding?) introduction to the sequence, “is where it all went down.”
You might take Mexico as some objective correlative for Sara, or vice versa. You might also understand that “the hottest state,” Texas, is somehow affiliated with the heat that’s so visible during their passionate, sweet, and starkly (and wonderfully) scored Mexican trysting. “She was human,” gushes William in voice-over, “the most human person I’d ever met. That was sexy.” You might also see here, in their ups and downs, in William’s nearly smothering need, that all his love and desire and need are leading back to the story that’s really important for him, the one about his father.
It hardly seems coincidental that Hawke plays the older Vince, most often in flashbacks from young William’s perspective. He’s framed from low angles and in motion, as the child walks with him, watches him in the car, aches for him not to leave. This even though, as Vince points out, he’s not the one leaving Texas. Rather, it’s William’s mother, Jesse (Laura Linney), who moves her child to another planet. Perhaps needless to say, William’s present relationship with Jessie is taut: she resents his resentment, and is hardly sympathetic when he confesses to her his grief over losing Sara, who, after Mexico, rejects him rather abruptly. “The route to depression,” offers Jessie as she hands him his 21st birthday present (a pair of shoes, so he can stop wearing cowboy boots), “is being too self-involved.”
Right. And so William descends full-on into self-involvement, hanging around outside Sara’s window, watching her, calling her from a pay phone on the corner, even reciting one of Romeo’s soliloquies (“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”), still unable to see himself as she might (he claims he wanted to use the best words he knew, to express his love). Engulfed by his sense of loss, William returns to the source, his father. Theirs is a thankfully brief scene, curt and cut into shots and reverse shots as they finally look at one another from the same angle. With no possible advice to give his son on romance, forgiveness, or generosity, Vince looks more weathered than ideal. William is finally looking at a man who has, despite years of absence and denial, become his mirror. Even amid the turmoil of Sara, the yelling and regretting, this is the movie’s most painful scene, precisely because the language is so elusive.