Review: 'Black Box' ★★★ 1/2

'Black Box'

Scene from the film Black Box, now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. (Courtesy the Gene Siskel Film Center, Handout)

Young adulthood is so very, very hard to capture honestly on screen, in all its lurches and false starts and weird little moments of truth. Compress those experiences into the weeks spent rehearsing a college play, and there's an almost absurd degree of self-perpetuating angst involved.

This is the subject of "Black Box," Chicago-based writer and director Stephen Cone's new feature, now in a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Plaintive and generous, it's a worthy follow-up to Cone's previous film, "The Wise Kids." I hope Cone keeps writing and making movies because he has what a lot of other writer-directors do not: an interest in character; a facility for drawing fine, subdued on-camera work from stage performers; and a knack for pulling together a variety of sympathetic characters at a crucial point in their collective lives.

Cone's protagonist is Holly, a graduate student in the theater department at an unnamed Midwestern college. (The film was shot on the Illinois State University campus in Normal; interior scenes were filmed in Chicago's Viaduct Theatre, among other locales.) Her next production is hugely ambitious: an original adaptation of a YA novel in the harsh allegorical vein of "Flowers in the Attic," something called "The Reaper's Children." The content involves sadomasochistic rituals, sexual torment, master/slave dynamics and a lot of other things that are new to Holly's young and, for the most part, virginal undergraduate cast members. But this is an experimental black-box production, and what is college theater for, if not for wading in over your head?

As Cone follows Holly and company through rehearsals, a visitor arrives one day. He is the reclusive author of the novel, played with easygoing eccentricity by Austin Pendleton, curious about how his novel will be handled by these babes in the liberal-arts woods. (The script doesn't really make a convincing case as to why this writer would pop in and then stay for the duration.) "Black Box" runs just over 80 minutes, but it does not feel rushed. Cone takes time to linger over individual, often fraught rehearsal sequences that yield affecting results, as when the good Catholic girl (Jaclyn Hennell) freaks out one night on stage about kissing a semi-closeted young co-star (Alex Weisman) because it's her first kiss, period.

Josephine Decker has a warm, vibrant quality as Holly, someone who's a mere handful of years older than her colleagues. They are, however, crucial years. "This isn't high school!" she says at one point, breaking up a fight between two actors. "You're adults!" Barely. "Black Box" in its quiet way celebrates the discoveries an undergraduate can make, accidentally or on purpose, on a stage or in the wings.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Black Box" - 3 1/2 stars

No MPAA rating (nudity, some sexual material)

Running time: 1:24

Plays: Friday-Thursday at Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

CHICAGO

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