In some ways, Ash Christian's debut feature, Fat Girls, is what independent cinema is supposed to be about. The 22-year-old writer-director-star made the film on the cheap, and it's obviously informed by his personal experiences. Christian plays a doughy gay high-school senior serving out his last few weeks in a Texas small town before moving to New York City, where he hopes to tread the boards on Broadway. His school has unheeded signs on every wall declaring that MLK High is a "no bully zone," and when Christian comes out to his guidance counselor, she hands him a fistful of condoms and a pamphlet on alternative lifestyles that she got from her church. Meanwhile, his devoutly evangelical widowed mom finds out about his orientation when her "buddies in bereavement" group comes over to watch the new Kirk Cameron film and accidentally pops in Christian's gay porn instead.


But Christian doesn't appear to be interested in making a keenly observed, lightly comic slice of life. Fat Girls is fully in the "quirky indie" mold, populated by frumpy characters who sport slack expressions and enthuse about silly life plans. (Christian's morbidly obese best friend, for example, proudly announces her plan to go the community college and become a nutritionist. Ha ha.) Some of Christian's comic setpieces work, like when his character gets caught sucking off a fellow parishioner in a Sunday-school closet, then wipes the semen off his face with an American flag. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of Fat Girls' jokes are clever or funny, and even those that get laughs slowly drain the movie of its realism.

Fat Girls builds to a confrontation at the graduation dance, where Christian shows up with MLK's only other openly gay student, but because the film hasn't established itself fully as a farce, satire, picaresque romp, or heartfelt memoir, Christian doesn't find a way to make this big moment amount to anything. Fat Girls has flashes of promise—any movie that sets contrasting sex scenes in a gay bar bathroom and a feed-store parking lot earns a nod of appreciation—but Christian seems to lack an essential heft. In the words of his own character, this young filmmaker hasn't found his "inner fat girl."