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The Awkward Appeal of a Young Man's Chase

By Janet Maslin 
New York Times, March 16, 1991 

He is familiar even if you've never seen him before: the lovelorn creep, the campus nuisance, the guy guaranteed to prompt elaborate shows of indifference every time he enters a room. In spite of all this, he is weirdly appealing, perhaps because his efforts to escape his own awkwardness are so clearly doomed.

As played by Caveh Zahedi, who is both the star and co-director (with Greg Watkins) of "A Little Stiff," this U.C.L.A. film student and would-be suitor becomes as funny as he is desperate. First seen talking to a long-suffering friend (played by Mr. Watkins) about his unfortunate efforts with women, Caveh (Mr. Zahedi uses his real name) embarks upon a campaign. He spies a fellow student named Erin in an elevator, makes her his target and begins doing all the wrong things either to win her over or to scare her away.

Having initially described his approach to wooing women as "do or die," Caveh starts out with research to figure out who Erin is (an art student with no known boyfriend) and where she can be found. He contrives to run into her, and does it in the clumsiest way possible, when she is with a group of friends. He engages in a flurry of demented planning, discussing strategy on the telephone as he paces frantically beside a half-dead ficus plant. He feeds nuts to a squirrel and regards that as a romantic metaphor. He tries writing a song in which "Erin" and "starin'" rhyme.

"A Little Stiff," which will be shown tonight at 9 P.M. and tomorrow at 6 P.M., unfolds in a deadpan black-and-white style that is humorously loaded with the baggage of the directors' film school education. (Both are recent alumni of the University of California at Los Angeles.) There are long shots, long takes, long pauses and many droll reminders of undergraduate excess. Caveh, for instance, enlists Erin's help as an actress in a short film he is making, which he describes as one of 26 epiphanies, one for each letter of the alphabet. Erin's film will be "E Is for Elevator," but there is also "S Is for Stranger," "K Is for Kissing" and "M is for Maggot" - the last one capturing that "dead animal on the side of the road experience," as Caveh puts it. There is also a brief, priceless scene in which Caveh ties himself into knots trying to extract a satisfactory message from one of his dreams.

Erin herself says very little in the face of Caveh's hilariously unreasonable persistence. When she does speak, it isn't promising. She confides her desire to extract psychedelic chemicals from a certain type of frog, for instance, which leads the conversationally panicky Caveh to muse about whether each organism in the world might not have hallucinogenic properties for some other organism. "That doesn't seem statistically possible," Erin sighs, thus cutting off any further small talk.

Erin finally responds to Caveh's persistent invitations - to screenings of Bresson and Tarkovsky films - by inviting him somewhere and showing up with another suitor in tow. Caveh's efforts to wow them both by screening one of his strenuous student films (apparently a real, decade-old short film of Mr. Zahedi's) are no match for the other boyfriend's more laid-back approach. He later confides to Caveh that he and Erin are "totally in tune with other" where their "philosophies and attitudes" are concerned, and that Erin once told him, "I just want you to play your violin while I paint."

Caveh's response to this is to accept the other boyfriend's drugs, experience a bad acid trip and then become even more unhinged when Erin refuses to offer much sympathy. She tells him little more than that she's busy and to "think positive." "A Little Stiff" is at times more deadpan than it should be, and it might have benefited from a more forceful directorial voice. But most of it has wit, snap and a horribly clear understanding of paralyzing angst.

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