The term “little movie” is implicitly condescending. Reviewers unwittingly use it to diminish the significance of stringently budgeted pictures doomed to play specialist cinemas where, with luck, they might recoup their production costs. But, as James Hilton’s crusty schoolmaster, Mr. Chips, reminds us, you can’t judge the importance of things solely by how big they are or how much noise they make. In terms of artistic ambition and achievement, no film could be smaller than Cutthroat Island, The Last Action Hero, Hudson Hawk, and other overproduced vanity megaflops. Conversely, Dadetown, Trainspotting, and Secrets & Lies, which cost less than the ad campaigns for those Hollywood studio-busters, offer penetrating insights into public and private behaviors, communicating ideas and capturing emotions that sharpen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Actor/writer/director Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge falls somewhere between these extremes. Its purview is rigorously circumscribed—a portrait of a 31-year-old working-class slacker—but within its self-imposed limitations, the film is expertly realized. Moviegoers with a taste for slice-of-life realism will find it rewarding, if something less than revelatory.

A quick glance at the credits, which include such Downtown icons as actress Eszter Balint and composer Evan Lurie, might lead one to expect an emotionally detached, Jarmuschlike observation of ordinary lives. But in his directorial debut, Buscemi addresses his subject with unexpected sympathy and engagement. Since his riveting 1986 breakthrough performance as an AIDS victim in the late Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, Buscemi has become the patron presence of independent filmmaking, as ineluctable as the canned pineapple slice garnishing “Hawaiian” recipes. His R. Crumb face, with its pallid skin, sunken bug-eyes, and vampire incisors, has endorsed the nonconformity of projects by filmmakers as diverse as Tarantino, Scorsese, Altman, Jarmusch, and the Coen brothers. After a decade of outré appearances in these films, he’s become something of a cliché. But Trees Lounge recharges his creative batteries, revealing an artist of greater substance than his eccentric roles have allowed him to demonstrate.

Buscemi’s Tommy Basilio is an aimless but voluble Long Island loser, jobless since his ex-boss and former friend Rob (Anthony LaPaglia) caught him dipping into the till of the auto shop where he was employed. Rob has also spirited away Tommy’s exasperated, pregnant girlfriend, Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco), whose child might be Tommy’s. Financially and emotionally depleted, Tommy hangs out at the titular bar, guzzling shots of Wild Turkey and angling, with spasmodic success, to score one-night stands. When his Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel) suddenly expires, Tommy half-heartedly takes over his relative’s ice cream-truck route, but spoils that stopgap source of income when he succumbs to the blandishments of his adoring 17-year-old helper, Debbie (Chloe Sevigny). By the movie’s fadeout, Tommy’s prospects are dimmer, and his future bleaker, than when we initially met him.

In interviews, Buscemi credits actor-director John Cassavetes as his main inspiration, particularly that filmmaker’s elevation of characters and relationships above linear narrative. Although his approach is more conventional than his artistic mentor’s, it is also less self-indulgent; we’re spared the interminable actors’ improvisations that make Cassavetes’ work so exhausting. Buscemi’s characters reveal themselves in tersely written and tightly edited vignettes, a technique closer in style to the work of Mike Leigh.

From the opening last-call bar sequence, with its queasy tan Naugahyde banquettes and an almost palpable scent of urine-tinged disinfectant in the smoky air, Trees Lounge is rich in atmosphere and detail. It isn’t surprising to learn that Buscemi grew up in this proletarian environment, Valley Stream, Long Island, and considers Tommy a projection of what his own life might have been like had he not escaped to Manhattan and pursued an acting career. Both of Tommy’s occupations—auto mechanic and ice-cream vendor—are jobs Buscemi held in his youth, and his brother and father are part of the acting ensemble. The lived-in, blue-collar ambience of Trees Lounge distinguishes it from movies with similar protagonists (the gutter glamour of Barbet Schroeder’s romanticized Barfly) and settings (Hal Hartley’s formally austere, increasingly pretentious Long Island comedy-dramas).

Buscemi’s skill with actors is evident in every frame; no false note is sounded by any member of the cast. It’s difficult to single out individual performers for special praise, but I was especially impressed by the bored-kid radiance Sevigny brings to Debbie (trumping her screen debut in Larry Clark’s Kids), Daniel Baldwin’s Buttafuoco frenzy as her outraged father, Carol Kane’s seen-it-all Connie, the proprietor of Trees Lounge, Debi Mazar’s languid concupiscence as one of Tommy’s tipsy pickups, and Bronson Dudley’s ghostly presence as Bill, a Diane Arbus-esque tavern fixture and ominous harbinger of Tommy’s future. Buscemi’s subtle performance connects this gallery of cameos. His resourceful, nonjudgmental presentation of Tommy conveys how the character’s considerable potential—he once aspired to a stand-up comedy career—has been eroded by spinelessness, booze, his stagnant milieu, and a run of bad luck.

Except for a brief, unnecessarily explicit moment near the end when Tommy voices his existential agony (“I don’t know what I’m doing…I don’t feel anything but lost”), Trees Lounge is seamlessly executed. Buscemi deserves praise for avoiding the bombastic overreaching characteristic of many first films, but one can’t help wishing that he had bitten off a bit more to chew. This episodic depiction of a nobody headed nowhere has little resonance or application beyond its specific situation, a problem inherent in naturalistic works of art. Still, Buscemi’s directorial finesse—manifested in the final image of Tommy, which parallels an earlier shot of the wizened, pickled Billy staring vacantly at a drink while the Ink Spots’ oldie “I Understand” plays on the jukebox—marks him as a filmmaker of uncommon promise.CP