At the heart of Etienne!, writer/director Jeff Mizushima's urban picaresque about a San Francisco loner and his beloved, dying pet, is a lightly wrought take on a classic theme: The universe is a living body, and our hidden acts and smallest kindnesses not only contribute to its well-being, but give it an order we may never fully understand. It's a shame, then, that whimsy-phobes—even the mildest cases—may ball into a defensive crouch before Mizushima hits his modest stride. We're talking about twee French pop tunes, self-ironic roommates, and an affectless twentysomething janitor named Richard (Richard Vallejos) who sports a Juan Valdez moustache and dresses like a hipster Von Trapp. After being told that his hamster, Étienne, has cancer, Richard decides to take him on a farewell bike trip along the Pacific coast. Richard's contagious glazed expression is thankfully broken up by encounters with various kindly strangers, and a parallel plot involving a heartbroken co-ed (Megan Harvey) is shoehorned in. Our relationships with pets—and their more ambivalent bonds to us—are explored like everything else here: lightly. "Randomness is part of the process," a pinhole photographer that Richard meets says of his craft. It's a hopeful—and ultimately ironic—thesis statement for a film undercut by its own determined cuteness.
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