It sounds like a painful concept that you'd find in a sleazy Hollywood comedy: a young nerd, fresh out of high school, befriends a has-been porno queen, falls madly in love, helps her out of a jam, and learns a few valuable life lessons in the progress. You could probably name all the key plot points and supporting characters without even seeing the film, right? That's certainly what the film festival guide's premise for Meet Monica Velour had me thinking. Fortunately I do not write reviews of film festival guide premises, which is why I watched the movie itself.

And, hey, it's actually quite a little winner, truth be told. Oh sure, it hits a few stumbling blocks here and there, given that it is a first-timer's feature after all, but overall I found myself touched and rather impressed by the flick's restraint, honesty, and emotional heft.

Film festivals are rife with films in which aging actresses shed their make-up, approve the close-ups, and get (physically / emotionally / professionally) abused for all the world to see. Sometimes it's a big-time Hollywood star who's itching for a little indie cred, and sometimes it's a slightly outdated TV actress who's more than happy to get grungy for a low-budget film. My point is this: it works like a charm ... sometimes. First-time writer / director Keith Bearden has Kim Cattrall in his corner, and wouldn't you know it -- the lady is just terrific here.
Ms. Cattrall certainly doesn't need the cash, what with another Sex and the City flick just about to make millions at the box office, so one must assume she signed on for Meet Monica Velour because she liked the script, the filmmaker, and the character she was offered. It's certainly a role any actor would enjoy: she plays a former porn star who has fallen on hard times, and it takes the affections of one lone nerd to help her calibrate her emotional compass. It's actually a whole lot (bitter)sweeter -- and enjoyably weirder -- than I make it sound.

Dustin Ingram plays Tobe, an 18-year-old super-nerd who is forever starstruck by '80s skin flick legend Monica Velour. So when he finds out she'll be dancing in a seedy bar, Tobe climbs into his snack truck (don't ask) and hits the road. (He also plans to sell the snack truck to an eccentric kitsch collector, but that's just the subplot. A pretty cool one, though.) Ingram's "look" tells me we'll be seeing more than a few Napoleon Dynamite comparisons in future reviews of Meet Monica Velour, but there's a big difference between that film and this one -- mainly that here, Bearden seems to sincerely like his characters.

In most cases, that wouldn't be enough to make a successful film, but Bearden actually delivers two or three extended sequences in which our two leads just ... talk. It's not florid "script" speak that's meant to represent something else, nor is it mindless banter or May-December flirting. It's just straight, honest dialogue about love and loss, pain and healing, youth and experience, friends and lovers, etc. And it works not only because we've actually come to care about these unexpectedly three-dimensional characters, but also because of the leads. Cattrall runs the gamut from selfish to vulnerable to sexy to horribly sad -- and Ingram manages to go from a slightly insufferable jerk to a surprisingly clever guy, plus the young actor has a real gift for timing that pops up in the smallest of off-hand remarks.

With some solid chuckles, a warm heart, a few impressively hard choices, and some colorful support from Brian Dennehy, Keith David, and funny young newcomer Jee Young Han, it's easy to overlook a few minor missteps. It's just a quiet little "people" story, and while I wouldn't say Meet Monica Velour succeeds on all counts, I certainly would call it an strange, funny, oddly sweet, and very impressive debut from a first-time filmmaker.