THE NIGHTOWLS OF COVENTRY

Writer/director Laura C. Paglin's first feature has a lot going for it: bountiful charm; well-defined characters and solid acting, her largely unknown actors doing a much better job of disappearing into their roles than many of their Hollywood A-list counterparts. Unfortunately, it's never really made clear why we should care about a dilapidated deli in Cleveland Heights' Coventry Road neighborhood during the early 1970s. Press clips from previous festival stops mention that Irv's Deli, which Nightowls' fictional Marv's Deli was based on, operated as an always-open, bohemian hangout until its 1989 closing. You could argue that the film educates generations of young people weened on Denny's Grand Slams, Chili's babyback ribs and similar robot food about the virtues of indie greasy spoons where food and service were less important than the dysfunctional family bonds that grew between oddballs in need of someplace to go. But that message is hard to make out amid poor sound and weak opening scenes by Donna Casey as the innocent young waitress who is supposed to serve as the audience's eyes and ears. Meanwhile, Seymour Horowitz is so adept at nailing his Marv character as a schemer and adulterer and health-code violator that you root for the forces that eventually shut him down. With a little more dough, a few more takes and a stronger emphasis on one or two main characters, Paglin might've dished up the special of the day. (Matt Coker) (Edwards Island, Thurs., April 22, 5:30 p.m.)

EDWARDS ISLAND CINEMAS, 999 NEWPORT CENTER DRIVE, NEWPORT BEACH; REGENCY LIDO THEATER, 3459 VIA LIDO, NEWPORT BEACH. (949) 253-2880; NEWPORTBEACHFILMFEST.COM. MOST SCREENINGS, $10.

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