During the opening credits of Laurel Canyon, we drive up that Los Angeles road with Sam and Alex, two recent Harvard Medical School grads just off a plane from the East Coast. We see a series of shots showing the leafy neighborhood’s mixture of wealth and ramshackle counterculture appeal: driveways with shiny new Porsches parked next to rotting Volkswagens, a wild-haired guy who might be homeless—or might be walking up the hill toward his just-restored Neutra.

In their tiny rental car, Sam (Christian Bale) and girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are nearing a supposedly empty house owned by his record-producer mother, Jane (Frances McDormand). They’re planning to live there while Sam begins working in the psychiatry ward at a local hospital and Alex finishes her dissertation on the reproductive habits of fruit flies, which will give her the impressive M.D.-Ph.D. combo. But when they get to the house, of course, wheeling their click-clacking matching luggage around the pool and up the stairs, they find Jane, along with the members of the Britpop band whose album she’s still working on. They’re sitting around a coffee table littered with beer bottles and ashtrays, passing around a bong; Jane forgets Alex’s name 30 seconds after the introductions. It’s all a little embarrassing for Sam and Alex, but at the same time reassuring for us: Lisa Cholodenko clearly hasn’t forgotten her people.

If Woody Allen’s people are overeducated Upper West Side neurotics and Paul Thomas Anderson’s are misunderstood misfits with love to give, then the High Art writer-director’s are slowly maturing hipsters who smoke pot or shoot up or mix stiff drinks by 2 p.m. every day—but always in clothes cool enough and on midcentury furniture photogenic enough to make the whole thing suitable for a magazine spread. And because the stars of Cholodenko’s show are always Creative People, there is always Art Being Made—or at least the Possibility of Art Being Made at Some Point Later in the Afternoon, which goes a long way toward protecting the Creative People from real derision.

In High Art, the hipsters were heroin-addicted New York photographers. In Laurel Canyon, they’re friendlier and less threatening, and they obviously get a lot more sun—this is L.A., after all. The band members get high and play in the pool (still wearing their knit caps, of course) while also, in occasional visits to the house’s recording studio, trying to satisfy their label’s demands for a single that can be shipped before the Christmas rush. Jane is an unrepentant hedonist exhibiting signs of what might be called the aging of Aquarius; the band’s frontman, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), also happens to be her newest boyfriend. (The rest of the group is filled out by the real-life members of the Folk Implosion, playing music written by Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse.)

From then on, the movie revolves around the question of whether, or to what extent, the two young and rather uptight med-school grads—who spent the plane ride from the East Coast playing Scrabble, for God’s sake—will be drawn into the vortex. Some of the early signs are good: Sam wears polo shirts and corduroy blazers and other regalia of the uptight class, but he also sports a shaggy-chic and very L.A. kind of haircut. And Alex, despite outward displays of unshakable discipline—concentrating, in their first days at the house, on a computer screen full of genomic data even as the band’s music makes the walls shake—has brought along enough track suits to make us wonder whether there isn’t going to be some actual lounging in her future.

Those sorts of descriptions, of course, are too glib by half for our director, who really feels for this crowd, and whose goal is to make us understand that they have the same yearnings and vulnerable hearts as the 9-to-5-ers. Indeed, in describing what connects Laurel Canyon and High Art, Cholodenko has said that “both movies are about the complications of intimacy.”

Laurel Canyon also happens to be about the complications of nationality. We have two Brits—Beckinsale and Bale—playing an American couple. We have an American-born actor with an Italian name playing a Britpop singer. And, at the hospital where Sam is training (“in the locked ward”), we have another Brit, Natascha McElhone, playing a gorgeous Israeli colleague with a crush on Sam. Of the central cast of five, in other words, only McDormand gets to rant and rave in her natural accent.

That matters here, if only because accents tend to become a distraction: There are scenes in which Bale seems to be concentrating so hard on saying the words “over” or “more” or “piece of ass” correctly that he can’t even lift his head up and look at whomever he’s talking to. Even when he blows up in a screaming rage there seems to be a part of his mind saying, Diction, Christian, remember your diction. Beckinsale, for her part, has an American accent that is as cute and perfectly packaged as the rest of her—which is something less than a compliment.

Still, the rest of the cast manages to save the film with a mix of charisma and unexpected depth of feeling. This is thanks mostly to McDormand’s freewheeling performance as the haggard but high-spirited Jane: She tends to let her long, kinked hair fall over her worn face and flash her unenhanced breasts—two things, I’ll bet, that Beckinsale will never do, no matter how long her career lasts. McDormand also shows a veteran’s ability to slide past poorly written lines (as when she tells her son that she’s got four seats at the Hollywood Bowl and that they should all go and “get some wine, some weed, some chicken”) and fix our attention on the convincing ones. As her boy toy, Nivola has the same ability; the only real unknown in the cast, he practically walks away with the movie.

Cholodenko’s script, meanwhile, strikes a perfect balance between Sam’s regimented life and his mother’s defiantly free-form one, so that our sympathies tend to bounce from one to the other depending on the scene. He calls her an infant, she calls him uptight, and they’re both right. And for the most part, Cholodenko winds up being right about the complications of intimacy. If some of the intimacies themselves seem a little forced—especially the scenes, in the pool and later at the Chateau Marmont, in which Alex starts making out with Jane—the complications that follow are just the opposite. The scenes between Sam and Jane and between him and Alex, enervating emotional battles that have clearly been played out dozens of times before, have a surprisingly authentic feel. As stylish—and even glossy—as Laurel Canyon can get, at base it’s simply a film about relationships. It’s no coincidence that the band’s single, when it finally gets finished, turns out to be a love song. CP