"The Wise Kids"

"If we're so wise, why aren't we studying right now?"

** (out of four)

Let’s take a vote on what’s more compelling: People facing difficult emotions and dealing with them, or staring off into space for a while and ultimately experiencing minimal conflict? Thought so.

Chicago-based writer-director Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids” boasts better performances than his recent, underwhelming “In Memoriam,” but the filmmaker still takes a disappointingly superficial approach to worthwhile situations and characters lacking interior lives. Set in Charleston, S.C., “Wise” focuses on devoutly religious high school seniors (one of whom confronts his homosexuality) and a married church employee (Cone) struggling with his own identity.

Where Vera Farmiga's intelligent “Higher Ground” acknowledged the relationships at stake when friends and family clash over their beliefs, “Wise Kids” plays it safe by establishing differing opinions but avoiding much fallout or payoff (one firm believer advises a doubter, “Don't think so much,” and the debate ends there). By tentatively challenging a rigid commitment to faith without following through, Cone's film becomes merely a handful of effective moments packed between sideways glances and time-killing silence.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais