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Prep School Blues

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*Outside Providence (R)
Miramax

A joint project of director-writer Michael Corrente (Federal Hill, American Buffalo) and writers-producers Bobby and Peter Farrelly (There's Something About Mary), Outside Providence is a bright comedy with a bruised heart. Less a teen comedy than a '70s coming-of-age memoir, the film is based on Peter Farrelly's first novel, a fictionalization of his own experiences growing up in blue-collar Rhode Island.

Filmed in alternating shades of blue-black (Pawtucket) and gold (rural Connecticut), it tells the story of Timothy Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy), leader of a pack of high-school-age stoners, who gets busted one night when he rear-ends a parked police car. His father (Alec Baldwin), with the help of a friend, convinces a judge to send Dunphy off to prep school in lieu of jail, and there, at Cornwall Academy, he finds himself in an alternate universe where he must learn to either blend into the woodwork or establish an identity that will earn him a place among his upper-crust classmates.

Touching, briskly paced and frequently hilarious, Outside Providence relies on precise characterization rather than gags for its humor, unlike the outrageous comedies on which the Farrellys have staked their fame (Mary, Kingpin, Dumb and Dumber).

Completely independently financed, despite the Hollywood reputations of the filmmakers, the film maintains a gritty indie feel that helps enormously in capturing the run-down character of Pawtucket and the rough-shod nature of Dunph's family and friends.

Baldwin, in particular, captures this milieu with remarkable acuity. As Dunph's widowed father, he stumbles along trying to do what's best for his two sons, wearily sometimes and with no affectation -- he lounges after work in his La-Z-Boy, dressed in his underwear, eating ice cream straight from the carton. His group of poker buddies, including Cheers' George Wendt, provide some of the movies' funniest scenes. Baldwin feels perfectly natural as a good-looking but world-weary guy who loves his son but expresses his affection crudely and often ineffectually.

Young Hatosy and Baldwin share one poignant breakthrough scene where father teaches son to tie a necktie, so beautifully played that it alters the viewer's depth of vision significantly. Outside Providence boasts several such scenes that come when you don't expect them, tempering the boisterous humor with surprising doses of human frailty.

Hatosy, who was most recently seen in Richard Rodriguez's The Faculty, is perfectly cast as Dunph. He's tough but loving, a little whipped by the world but open to new experience, which he finds in Jane (Amy Smart), a blue-blooded co-ed who becomes his girlfriend at Cornwall. Smart, who jumped off the screen as the smart girl in a small, football-obsessed Texas town in Varsity Blues, is equally good here. The writers have given her a character with depth, humor and heart -- rare virtues among movie ingenues of late.

A terrific ensemble cast round out the film, portraying Dunph's Pawtucket buddies and his new friends at Cornwall. Outside Providence adds depth to the body of films about teenagers that have hit American movie screens en masse in the past year. While many of them are trite and trashy, some (Election, American Pie, Rushmore) have been far better written, funnier and better acted than what often passes for adult fare. Add this one to the top of the list.

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