Ira Sachs' tender, wrenching "The Delta" takes us not into the charming old Memphis of the Peabody Hotel and other genteel landmarks, or such tourist attractions as Beale Street and Graceland. Instead, it takes us to the city's more impersonal side streets and suburbs, some of the same seedy territory covered by Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train."
"The Delta" begins in the dark of night, on a highway in a park area where gay men cruise one another. A young man with a motorbike approaches another in his car. They have sex and go their separate ways, not to cross paths for another 35 minutes of this succinct, flawless and intimate 85-minute film. Sachs deftly uses these intervening minutes to establish the distinct and rarely intersecting worlds of these two young men.
Shayne Gray's Lincoln Bloom is a twentyish youth, handsome in a wholesome boy-next-door way, who still lives at home with his affluent businessman father. On the surface, the pleasant, well-behaved Lincoln fits in perfectly with family and his contemporaries, who tend to hang out a lot in a totally ordinary way. His girlfriend (Rachel Zan Huss) is a demure blond beauty, and they're a sweet, attractive couple. But underneath his ultra-conventional surface, Lincoln is drawn sexually to men. He hasn't yet discovered whether he is gay or bisexual.
The other young man (Thang Chan) looks to be the same age as Lincoln but is actually a decade older. He calls himself either Minh or John, depending on the circumstances. Born of a Vietnamese mother and an African American father never known to him, Minh has been in the U.S. for three years. (Chan himself was settled in Seattle in 1993 by the U.S government as part of a program to bring the children of American soldiers to the U.S.)
When Minh and Lincoln run into each other a second time in an adult entertainment arcade, Minh zeros in on Lincoln immediately. Minh is direct, passionate and openly gay; you believe him when he tells the bowled-over Lincoln that he fell in love with him the first time they met. The young men eventually head for Lincoln's father's boat, and a romantic idyll downriver in Mississippi.
But the question is this: How can they possibly develop their relationship in small-city Southern society? Minh has been marginalized to the max, fitting in neither the black nor Vietnamese emigre communities of Memphis, and facing much discrimination in his native land because of the color of his skin. He is a nervy, edgy man desperate for love and acceptance.
Meanwhile, Lincoln is completely conventional, apart from his uncertain sexual orientation. That he could have a gay Vietnamese-African American lover would surely be inconceivable to his family and friends. Will he ever find it within himself to pursue such a relationship in such an environment, or have the courage, let alone the desire, to take off with Minh?
In making his feature debut, Sachs returned to his native Memphis, where he spent six months reabsorbing the atmosphere. There, he discovered both Chan, a Seattle fishing cannery worker vacationing in Memphis, and Gray, an Arkansas rock drummer in the city for one night only. Neither of them had ever acted before.
Sachs' ability to draw deeply affecting, completely open and unself-conscious performances from Chan and Gray and other nonprofessionals as well is most impressive and highly effective. Working with masterly New York cinematographer Benjamin P. Speth, Sachs has created in "The Delta" an achingly poignant portrait of alienation and longing so evocative that it is poetic in its impact.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film's love scenes are brief and very discreet, but the film's themes are too adult for preteens.
Shayne Gray: Lincoln Bloom
Thang Chan: Minh Nguyen ("John")
Rachel Zan Huss: Monica
Ricky Little: Colonius Davis
A Strand Releasing presentation of a Charlie Guidance production. Writer-director Ira Sachs. Producer Margot Bridger. Cinematographer Benjamin P. Speth. Editor Alfonso Goncalves. Costumes Stevan Lazich. Music Michael Rohatyn. Production designer Bernhard Blythe. Art director Ying Ling Wong. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.