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Is this noble effort a coming-of-age film or an ensemble inquiry?

The Opposite of Sex begins at the funeral of a man who deserved to die. We know this because his 16-year-old stepdaughter Dedee (Christina Ricci) tells us so in voice-over. Her observation is reinforced rather pointedly by the on-screen action: Instead of throwing a handful of dirt onto his lowered casket, Dedee flings a rock and then starts tossing in the graveside flowers, and finally has to be restrained by her grieving floozy of a mother. We infer the floozy part from more of Dedee's bitter, somewhat straining-for-effect comments.

At this point Dedee addresses us directly, to comment not on the film's action, but on her extensive off-screen narration. "You're probably afraid this is one of those movies," she says, her voice as knowing and nasty as only a 16-year-old's (or permanent 16-year-old's) can be.

Then, as if to taunt our legitimate fears of voice-over, Dedee starts to talk a lot, always more knowingly. Drawing on her memories of freshman English, she informs us that the scene in which she steals the family pistol is an example of foreshadowing. "The part where I get the gun is like ... important."

And she's not through voice-overing yet. "I don't have a heart of gold," Dedee warns us. "And I don't grow one, later."

So far, the movie is nearly all voice, accompanied by admittedly striking image. Dedee sounds much older than 16, and Ricci's (of Addams Family fame) line-reading convinces us of her intelligence and the depths of her adolescent bitterness; but not that she's from Louisiana. Her voice is rich with cigarette and whiskey shadings, but lacks even a pinch of gumbo. Writer/director Don Roos pushes her self-absorption a little too far. Her warning about the importance of the gun implies that she thinks her R-aged audience is not smart enough to keep up with the action, which is what a 16-year-old should think, but not the adult filmmaker.

The narration does die down when Dedee hits the road in search of her gay half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), who is leading an out but quiet life as a high school English teacher in Indiana. The action gets pretty tangled after the warm-hearted guy takes her in and she seduces his live-in lover, the very pretty Matt (Ivan Sergei), whom she manages to convince of his bisexuality.

Since most of Dedee's narration at this point consists of putdowns of homos, fags and fairies, it's not clear why she'd want sex with Matt, except that Dedee is on a blindly destructive tear. Which isn't quite accurate -- she's destructive all right, but calculatingly so. She's pregnant, but who is the father? Her stepfather? Her high school boyfriend -- the fundamentalist Louisiana boy with only one testicle? (More voice-over.) Or beautiful, stupid Matt?

The ill-matched couple steals money from Bill, along with, more importantly, the ashes of the dead-from-AIDS love of Bill's life. The apparently rational and placid Bill sets out in pursuit, accompanied by Lucia (Friends' Lisa Kudrow), the sister of his dead lover (and apparently one of those women doomed to fall in love with gay men), and, indirectly, the town sheriff (Lyle Lovett). What kind of world do we live in, when Lyle Lovett has to fear being typecast as a lawman?

This is supposed to be a philosophical quest on Bill's part. Bill thinks he's pursuing true love, that is, the ashes of his deal soul mate, but he really just misses sex with Matt, according to the bitterly funny Lucia, who is the film's most acutely drawn character. "How does a woman get so bitter?" she's asked. Her answer -- "Observation" -- is the best line in a movie that at times strains to be clever, and at other times hits the mark.

Some genuinely funny bits happen along the way. The setup for Bill and Lucia's locating Matt, and its execution, is very good.

But the film also loses its focus around this point, and never completely reclaims it. The voice-over slows down, though why Dedee would have anything at all to say about action taking place hundreds of miles away from her remains a mystery. It's finally not clear whose story this is, as the film is both full of and limited by her consciousness. The Opposite of Sex isn't quite sure if it's Dedee's coming-of-age story, or an ensemble inquiry into the nature of love, desire and disgust.

Some of the film's satire is too broadly drawn, and wide of the mark. The religious right is a handy target, but are they really anti-Huck Finn, as the film has it? Worse, some of the characters remain flat -- Mark Donovan's Bill is the biggest frustration. Donovan has been a truly soulful actor. His performance in Hal Hartley's Trust continues to haunt the less-satisfying roles he's had since. The story's action asks more of his character than any other, but Bill remains inert, stuck with a frown maybe meant to be quizzical, but which finally feels defeated and, to the viewer, distancing.

Even Dedee seems underdeveloped by story's end, more an intriguing outline than a fully developed character. Roos undercut himself by rushing through his introduction of her, and some steps in her emotional development are never taken. For example, when she waxes thoughtful about closet cases and other gays, you have to wonder where this wisdom came from, since she is finally revealed to be no more self-aware than the average 16-year-old.

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