"Sharma and Beyond" (at the Beverly Center Cineplex) is the sort of film you feel protective about: an exhilarating little gem that probably won't get nearly the audience it deserves.
It was done by first-time director-writer Brian Gilbert for David Puttnam's "First Love" series, and starts a five-week series of those films: TV work conceived as a training ground for young British film makers.
Yet "Sharma and Beyond" is far from apprentice work; it consistently surprises you. It's a movie whose virtues reside in areas we're told audiences don't care about any more: the subtle interplay of human relationships, the nuances of dialogue, an exact penetration of character. And it's also a buoyant, lively movie, a film with such unerring cinematic rhythm and sunny skill that it makes you almost slap-happy watching it. (The people who really love this movie may go away from it smiling like fools.)
Gilbert focuses on what may seem an extremely quirky, "inside" subject: His protagonist is a young--probably not very talented--amateur science-fiction writer named Stephen Archer (Michael Maloney), who teaches English to immigrants. Stephen, on a provincial field trip, accidentally meets Natasha, the daughter of his idol, the epic British science-fictionist Evan Gorley Peters (Robert Urquhart), author of the renowned "Sharma" trilogy.
Natasha (Suzanne Burden) is withdrawn--not a shrinking violet, but an overly sensitive young woman who's retreated behind a brusque veneer. At first she seems a little chunky and plain--almost calculatedly unattractive--but, later, when she suddenly breaks into a tender smile, the effect is a little shocking--beauty that snuck up on you.
Her father is a remote, worn, shaggy man, who lives reclusively and obviously drinks too much. (As Peters, Urquhart gives one of the screen's most convincing portrayals of literary talent). He speaks so seldom that his soft, disarming little jibes, uttered with an almost ingenuous frankness, come across as gnomic utterances--especially to Stephen, who's ready to soak up anything he says and nod enthusiastically. Peters is a sad-looking chap, and his writing and his daughter seem most of what he has left in life.
Stephen, however, doesn't read them this way--as a couple of self-willed near-hermits who've retreated from life for possibly painful reasons--because Stephen himself is so high on life and on progress. He's a bundle of energy, an almost-idiot optimist, infatuated with science and gadgetry. (The actor Maloney most recalls is Jean-Pierre Leaud, so it's no surprise to learn that both Truffaut and Renoir are Gilbert's own idols.)
To Stephen, Peters is world-striding, profound, the lord of Sharma, the Shakespeare of science fiction. He's also the man from whom sponsorship might mean an entree to publication and fame--and Stephen's own book actually continues the Sharma myth. (Sharma and shame is what he's not beyond.)
He's an opportunist, though perhaps not too consciously. There doesn't seem to be much spark between him and Natasha at first, but he fans it, pursues her--and has such enthusiasm and persistence that he wins her over.
He's an anachronism, an innocent schemer. You couldn't really call him a rotter--though he's clearly manipulating the poor girl to get to her father--because he's so open about his ambition. He gets almost drunk on his fantasies (ironic, since Peters seems sloshed himself when they're together). This optimism blinds him to his own gaffes, the fool he's making of himself, and also perhaps to the pain he's causing Natasha--who's quite aware that men use her to get to her father, and is willing to cooperate, up to a point. The resolution of this bittersweet little tangle is so unpredictable yet appropriate that it gives you a happy rush.
Gilbert understands these characters so well that they come alive in a way in which most people in recent movies don't; the central trio (Maloney, Burden and Urquhart) are thoroughly, unfailingly brilliant. But what delights you most about the film--the quality that most recalls the Renoir of "Picnic on the Grass" or the Truffaut of "Stolen Kisses" (and perhaps also that blithe Scot, Bill Forsyth)--is its generous, even-handed spirit. This is a comedy that's witty and sparkling, but also unsparing. It reveals the characters to the quick (sometimes embarrassingly so), but never loses its nimble footing, or its unusual intelligence, sympathy and warmth. At the end, you want to applaud or, better, clasp the hand of everyone who made it. And then, perhaps, dig up the non-existent "Sharma" trilogy and read it cover to cover that very weekend.