Chasing Amy opens at a comics convention, where goateed comic-book writers and artists slump behind tables in windowless hotel ballrooms and await the enthusiastic assault of their fans. Populated by overgrown, rather lonely, boys, this is the echt slacker natural habitat, where it’s essential to understand the details of alternative worlds—they’re more home than Earth is—and girls, like the ones here dressed as futuristic pinups, are part of the fantasy furniture.

Holden (Ben Affleck) and his partner Banky (Jason Lee) are longtime best friends who have created such a refuge for their eager fans with their comic, Bluntman and Chronic, and take an unquestioning comfort in the closed world of guydom themselves. Banky is willing to get in an absurd fight with a fan over whether his job can be defined as “tracing,” and to shill for his friend Hooper, a whip-smart black homosexual who poses as a militant separatist to pump up sales of his comic, Whitehating Coon. (“‘What’s a Nubian?’” Hooper sneers after he’s cleared the Q&A room by waving a pistol. “Bitch, you almost made me laugh.”)

But Kevin Smith, the New Jersey filmmaker whose debut, Clerks, offered such promise and whose follow-up, Mallrats, pissed it away, isn’t content to linger in that world, personally or professionally. If the black-and-white Clerks was poorly paced—some of its dialogue hurried and without nuance—and its tone uneven, it had vigor, charm, and a restless intelligence belying the slacker moaning of its leads. (It also had one of the funniest lines in recent memory: “Did he say ‘make fuck’?” But I suppose context is everything.) It was clear from the start that if money didn’t trip him up, Smith was willing to use his power for good. Mallrats was the last sophomoric romp before getting down to the business of growing up—here, he has sublimated that disaster into the comic his characters draw, based on stoner layabouts Jay and Silent Bob. (Even they think the idea of having them scamper around, saving the universe and intoning catch phrases, is stupid. Apology accepted.)

With Chasing Amy, Smith’s filmmaking has matured and so has he. Holden and Banky are too smart to wallow in their macho little hothouse for long, so into this world comes Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), creator of a small-run girly comic. She’s got a binky voice, sweet knock-knees, and deep-set eyes like a wolf’s; Holden is thunderstruck. Banky senses trouble—there have been girls between them before, of course, but this time Holden seems to be drifting away from the comfort of the space capsule and willing to yank the cable after him.

Hooper finds all this terribly amusing, and before you can say Advise and Consent invites the boys to a night at Meow Mix, which is the lesbian bar it sounds like, and which does host the dawning-recognition moment we’ve come to expect from sitcoms and lesser films. But it’s tremendously funny: Holden watches rapt and grooving while Alyssa warbles a song to “that special someone” and a sullen blonde dances with equal self-assurance right next to him. The focus of the climax—the blonde rushes up to Alyssa for a long, devoted kiss—isn’t Holden’s dismay and confusion but Banky’s rhapsodic smugness. Never has a young straight guy been happier to find himself in a lesbian bar.

But Holden can’t help loving Alyssa; he’ll take her any way he can get her, even if it means being just good friends. And they are very good friends. She tolerates his naive questions and his earnestness; he delights in her impulsiveness and impish self-assurance. He does his best to keep Banky from alienating her completely. Feeling cornered and adrift, Banky regresses into a crude, hectoring, defensive, hetero jerk, who insists that all chicks need a “deep dick-drilling.” (“‘Chicks,’” Alyssa marvels. “You’re such a man.”) But he wants Alyssa to stay gay and thus inaccessable to Holden; he relishes comparing sexual injuries with her while Holden sulks in miserable silence.

Eventually, however, Banky’s worst nightmare comes true. After Holden makes an anguished confession, Alyssa capitulates. For her, choosing lesbianism was a way of not limiting her options; in a twisted way, choosing Holden is a rebellion against her own radical nature.

This bliss doesn’t last long, not in the insular community of the Jersey suburbs. Word gets back to Holden that, despite her carefully misleading him to believe he’s the first and only man in her bed, Alyssa has had a vigorous and experimental heterosexual history. While visions of hot multichick action starring his girlfriend thrill him, similar stories involving guys drive Holden insane. Furious, frustrated, and frightened, he engages her in a round of transparently passive-aggressive questioning in public that insults her to her dignified core.

Miserable, Holden sulks and plots peace offerings, each more inappropriate than the last. His love for Alyssa is as tenacious as his horror, and even worse, he finds out that among his friends, such a reaction is nothing new: He’s part of an unhappy club whose members have let fear drive away love. Smith’s young men are comically honest in every way except when it comes to women—they’re comfortable with the in-your-face gayness of Hooper, whose flamboyant pose is as phony as his militant one, because their macho pose, too, crumbles when they’re alone and they talk with real yearning and befuddlement. In fact, the best advice Holden gets is from callow, facetious Jay and sidekick Silent Bob (played by Smith), who tells the story that gives this movie its title and provides the title of the comic Holden eventually draws to expurgate the memory of his mistake and indicate that his art has grown up, too.

Smith has nailed down enough technical rudiments to allow him to get on with the story he wants to tell, smoothly and without arty or amateurish distractions. There’s nothing new about the film’s structure—boy meets girl, indeed—and he never gets carried away by the fact that he has figured out how to pose a two-shot and how to pace a shouting match. A solid basis in technique clears the way for the story to have maximum impact. Chasing Amy is a writer’s movie, not an artist’s; its charms are all verbal. The audience at one screening—more student than slacker—seemed transfixed during the dialogue, and participated the rest of the time, commenting and cheering and fretting. When, at a hockey game, Holden begins to badger Alyssa about her sexual past, the fratboy type next to me moaned, “Don’t do this here.”

Chasing Amy is not about how twentysomethings fear commitment but how they long for it. Smith makes the postmodern point that the perception of a relationship can be more real and defining than the actual experience; when it shifts in one partner’s head, the other person is left stranded. Holden clings to enough residual boyhood to forget that he needs to cherish Alyssa more than he cherishes the way he shines in her light—as the guy who turned her around. When the break comes, it’s heartbreaking to see him offer exponentially more painful and insulting solutions, and to see how hard Alyssa is willing to try to salvage their love and how much she is willing to forgive.

Trapped in his ego, Holden believes forgiveness is his luxury to offer. Finally, it isn’t his childish disgust that drives her away, but this insistence on maintaining a false balance of power with the man in the (this time morally) superior position. And that’s Smith’s point: The old-fashioned standards that keep women down keep men down, too. Romantic liberation can’t be found in novel sexual acts, but in generosity of heart.CP