(2002) ** 1/2 R
99 min. Fine Line. Director: Finn Taylor. Cast: Robin Tunney, Tim Blake Nelson, Brad Hunt, Liz Phair, Jason Priestley.

Finn Taylor's Cherish is a little too lazy to make good on its ambitions, but it's an inoffensive entertainment designed, like the pursuits of its characters, as a vicarious escape from life's drudgeries. Beginning by gaining immediate audience sympathy for his love-deprived, put-upon heroine, Taylor proceeds to milk romance, humor, music and a couple of scares from a wide-ranging story that seldom leaves the walls of urban apartments.

In fact, most of this indie comedy takes place in one apartment, where a young woman named Zoe (Robin Tunney) lives shackled to a house-arrest bracelet giving her a slim radius of slack from a deadpan, blinking box. She finds herself locked up after an aborted dating-attempt-turned-carjacking turns into a manslaughter for which she unwillingly takes the rap. With the real criminal on the loose and a good chance she'll be locked up for a long time when her looming court date comes due, Zoe scrambles to root out the man responsible for her imprisonment. In the process, she discovers both that the criminal is stalking her and that she is falling for her dungeon-master, a sad-sack named Daly (Tim Blake Nelson) who monitors the electronic bracelet program. Soon, she's breaking her literal and figurative bonds.

Taylor's concept here isn't rocket science, but it works, and the audience accepts the respites from claustrophbic tedium as eagerly as Zoe. Zoe escapes into self-styled fantasies and her favorite pop tunes from the eighties, and her euphoria is contagious. The overriding metaphor of the film is also simple--delineating the trapped feeling of offbeat folks in a conformist world--and the liberation of the anguished characters (except for the obviously pained criminal, who Taylor is content to leave marginalized) satisfies.

The film works because of Tunney, whose pouty restlessness explodes fetchingly into determinate action. She's funky but soulful and attractive, and its difficult to imagine another young actress endearing us or convincing us by the trickery she employs here. Tim Blake Nelson is almost as invaluable for--with half Tunney's screen time--artfully coloring in the outline of the lonely Daly; by coloring outside the lines a bit, he brings sloppy purpose to another character who wants out even if he doesn't know it yet.

Apparently concerned with breaking out of societal traps, Cherish is actually mock-unconventional, settling for an Ally McBeal-esque middle ground of comfortably offbeat characters when it could get its hands a little dirtier. But it would be churlish to dismiss this pop song of a movie as being any less than catchy.

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