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'Late August' refreshingly heartfelt

LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER --*** -- Mathieu Amalric, Virginie Ledoyen, Francois Cluzet, Jeanne Balibar, Alex Descas, Arsinee Khanjian, Mia Hansen-Love; in French, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (profanity, sex, nudity, vulgarity, brief violence); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

There's no new ground covered in, no new insights offered by "Late August, Early September," the newest work by acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. And while that might be the downfall of a less talented director, somehow Assayas turns those weaknesses into strengths. The results may not be completely original or thought-provoking, but on whole, the movie is refreshingly honest and heartfelt.However, those who aren't prepared for this literary drama's talk-heavy scenes may find the pacing ponderous, and its New Wave, neo-realistic storytelling may lead some to categorize it as navel-gazing.

That makes "Late August, Early September" a kindred soul to the films of Ingmar Bergman -- minus the sometimes stifling angst. Although Assayas is more a contemporary of fellow Frenchman Eric Rohmer, whose films also tend to polarize viewers.

The performances are excellent and the characters are so appealing that the audience will likely be sucked in by the story, which follows a group twenty- and thirtysomethings trying to make the transition from youth to adulthood in one piece.

The story is broken up into vignettes, each bearing a chapter heading. Most of them deal with Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), whom we first see trying to cope with a drawn-out breakup with longtime girlfriend Jenny (Jeanne Balibar). That's not as easy as it sounds, since the two are trying to sell their old apartment.

Gabriel is also trying to gauge how deep his feelings go for his new girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen, from "The Beach"), who is reluctant to trust men because of an abusive past relationship.

So Gabriel seeks the advice of his close friend and mentor, Adrien (Francois Cluzet), an author barely eking out an existence. And Adrien does offer Gabriel valuable suggestions and work as his assistant.

Unbeknownst to Gabriel, however, Adrien has two secrets -- that he may be dying, and that he's been carrying on a relationship with Vera (Mia Hansen-Love), a 16-year-old schoolgirl who has to sneak out to meet her lover in secret.

That latter storyline may sound unsavory, but Assayas (who also did 1996's little-seen but beloved "Irma Vep") treats it with sensitivity and sweetness -- there's even an ironic, beautiful payoff to this subplot.

Admittedly, his decision to shoot a few scenes in handheld, "shaky-cam," style is a bit off-putting. But it feels appropriate for such slice-of-life material, instead of like someone showing off camera tricks.

And again, he benefits from the work of a great cast. Amalric is perfectly befuddled as Gabriel, and lacks the smugness that many French leading men possess. It's also nice to see Ledoyen play a troubled character, and she shows more range than usual.

"Late August, Early September" is not rated but would probably receive an R for profanity, simulated sex, female nudity, use of crude sexual slang and brief scene of violence (a tussle).