THE HI-LINED: Ron Judkins; with Rachel Leigh Cook, Ryan Alosio, Margot Kidder, Stuart Margolin, Rainer Judd.
A fragile beauty caught in a loser world, Rachel Leigh Cook has the kind of trapped doe eyes that made Winona Ryder famous. The pint-sized star of She's All That (and perhaps more impressively, "This Is Your Brain on Heroin" PSAs), Cook could easily be dismissed as another cog in the well-oiled Teenseltown machine. But in this slowly warming debut film from writer-director Judkins, the actress proves she deserves a second look. Cook plays Vera Leigh, a 20-year-old girl brimming with boredom and the longing for escape. The film's template is familiar -- small-town Vera embarks on a mysterious journey with a shifty-eyed stranger (Alosio) -- but as in any good adventure, the trip is the destination. Judkins paints his characters with respect, allowing them to hold on to their isolated world without losing their dignity. These are not smart people, but they're good people, and through the performances of the actors, we grow to care about them. Although their story seems familiar, on closer inspection, it is entirely unique.