Throwback Buddy Flick Makes You Squirm, Nicely

------------ Movie review ------------

XXX "Dream With the Fishes," with David Arquette, Brad Hunt, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Erbe, Patrick McGaw. Directed and written by Finn Taylor. 96 minutes. Broadway Market Cinemas. "R" - Restricted because of profanity, drug content and sexuality.

A throwback to the independent-minded, anything-goes movies that followed in the wake of "Easy Rider" in the early 1970s, this low-budget charmer comes off as a buddy-movie version of one of the essential cult films of that period, "Harold and Maude."

Like the suicidal teenager Harold, Terry (David Arquette) is too young to die, but that doesn't stop him from trying. Claiming he can't get over his wife's death in a traffic accident, he plans to jump off a bridge when a sickly junkie named Nick (Brad Hunt) turns up and tries to talk him into a less painful approach: sleeping pills.

Nick offers to exchange his barbiturates for the shy, voyeuristic Terry's watch, but the swap turns out to be unequal, and Terry demands the watch back. At this point, Nick reveals that he's dying and strikes another bargain: If Terry will use his money to make Nick's fantasies come true, Nick will help him avoid suicide by killing him.

The premise sounds contrived. So does the friendship that develops on the road as these two drop acid (and get a policeman stoned as well), set off on a minor crime spree and hire a couple of prostitutes for nude bowling.

But the writer-director, Finn Taylor, drawing from his own experiences with a dying friend, keeps coming up with scenes that feel fresh and personal, and he has the actors to make them sink in.

Arquette, who has been improving steadily as his roles get larger and better, really comes into his own with this part. He makes the character's gradual changes credible without suggesting a complete transformation.

Stuck in the "Maude" role as a dying cheerleader for life, the unknown Hunt does equally well, creating a genuine eccentric. He never allows the plot purposes of the character to become too obvious.

The other actors don't have as much screen time, but they make it count, particularly Kathryn Erbe as Nick's long-suffering current girlfriend, Anita Barone as an old flame he tries to rekindle, J.E. Freeman as Nick's macho father and Cathy Moriarty as his more sympathetic aunt.

Taylor pulls no tricks to get the two friends out of their situation. The epilogue couldn't be less compromising. It's even a little embarrassing to watch Terry redeem himself in the especially awkward way in which he chooses to do so.

Like so many of those early-1970s films, "Dream With the Fishes" dares to make you feel uncomfortable. It also manages to make you appreciate it.