A somnambulist shuffle through New York's bohemian underworld, Lisa Cholodenko's vision of a shrivelled Big Apple couldn't be further from Woody Allen's rose-tinted Manhattan. High Art's eavesdropping on those slumped inside the city's interiors is no more `honest' than Allen's romanticised vision, but it makes for an absorbing piece of indiedom.
Although clearly a critique of New York's heroin-chic boom of the early '90s, High Art's heart lies in the complex relationship between Sheedy's drowsy, cynical thirtysomething, and Mitchell's naïve would-be yuppie.
Lesbians on film are often reduced to borderline psychos or sleazy bimbos; with its treatment of drug abuse, High Art goes out of its way not to patronise or degrade. It's the most emotionally gratifying coupling in recent years, but when the two press flesh in their inevitable seduction scene, the result is awkward and intimate, under-pinned with well-observed, nervy tenderness.
At one stage, a character describes photography as "subverted realism", a technique Cholodenko subscribes to. So while drawling dialogue and raw performances point towards bare naturalism, the watercolour lighting, incidental details and poster-print framing point towards something more measured and style-conscious. Comparisons with Godfather Of Indie John Cassavetes are hard to ignore, with the gritty ambience and Lucy behaving like a woman under the influence.
But Cholodenko has plenty to say for herself, most of it mumbled through a haze of angst. Ambition, dependence, love and addiction are heavy themes, most carried on the world-weary shoulders of Sheedy's photographer. It's one of many outstanding performances: Patricia Clarkson scene-steals as Lucy's possessive lover, like Marlene Dietrich on mogadon, while Mitchell embues Syd with an intriguing ambiguity. But this is Sheedy's movie. Freed from the curse of her Brat Pack heyday, her comeback is a performance of great subtlety and maturity, and the highlight in a low-life film.
An intimate view of Bohemian New York blessed with drowsy atmospherics and a charismatic turn from Ally Sheedy. Cholodenko may take on one theme too many, and it sometimes feels like Cassavetes-lite, but High Art has much to recommend.