Something Hollywood rarely gets right is young lust -- the inchoately hormonal middle-school kind. Eighth-graders in mainstream movies don't have hormones. Instead, they have older siblings who do. When the movies do get it, it's miraculous, but the few examples (Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse ," for one) come from the margins. Everything else seems made by kittens, unicorns, and BFFs .
The cat of choice in Cam Archer's feature debut, "Wild Tigers I Have Known ," is a mountain lion on the loose. Maybe it's real, maybe a figment. With this lyrical collection of non-narrative shots, vignettes, and interludes, there's no useful difference between what's true and what's not. If it's on the screen, it's real (or unreal) enough -- fantastical ambiguity (sexual, emotional, formal) being Archer's apparent stock in trade.
His subject is Logan (Malcolm Stumpf ). Logan is 13, androgynous, and probably gay -- he's not quite ready to give a name to his thoughts of high school wrestlers. But we get it. The wigs, the lipstick, the Nina Simone : He's searching. His brawny new friend, Rodeo (Patrick White ), provides a repository for Logan's wonder and desire. These two go on long walks together and have seemingly innocent talks that Archer conveys with benign artiness (shots of them promenading in the woods, while their conversations play, disembodied, on the soundtrack).
This seems too autobiographical for words. But Archer has culled his sense memories and burgeoning talent (he's 24) into a maiden work of experimentalism: blackout editing transitions, ambient noise, digital video bits, superimpositions, moments of sloth. The avant-gardeness of it all might have been precious beyond belief.
Ditto for the parade of apparent influences. The film at least evokes , if not borrows liberally from , Gus Van Sant , Harmony Korine , David Gordon Green , Jonathan Caouette's home-movie memoir "Tarnation ," the dreamy work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul , and, in a couple of ominously good telephone scenes between the boys, David Lynch . (The flattery of Archer's imitation got Van Sant to serve as one of the film's many executive producers.)
But Archer is not grasping at stylistic straws. He believes in the little world he's captured. For one thing, the kids' amateurism feels right. Stumpf is often outfitted to resemble someone voted "most likely to play keyboards in a lesbian New Wave band." The hair and the outfits are often too much (sleeveless hooded sweatshirts at 13? Really?), but he owns the style. Max Paradise , as Logan's fey buddy, Joey, is wonderfully dour. One of the funniest moments is a shot of the list he's made on how to be cool: "wear cologne," "subscribe to Vice ," " 'Hollywood.' " It's not hard to relate. There's another more painfully comic list later.
These are bits where "Wild Tigers" seems to have crawled out from under its influences to find a voice of its own. Archer isn't necessarily taking us anywhere new, but his movie's rapture is beautiful inside and out.