Shia LaBeouf, the talented young star of The Battle of Shaker Heights, has eyes that dart with accusatory cunning, a thick round mop of brown curls, and a mouth that's fast and direct enough to let you know that he means everything he says. As Kelly, a suburban teenager who is furious at his recovering-junkie father, and therefore the world, yet too self-involved to hurt anyone, LaBeouf makes bantam-weight hostility charming. He's like a fusion of Igby, the young John Cusack, and a lost Marx Brother (Snarko?).
Kelly, who saunters down the street in an Army jacket worn in the style of a '70s hipster, shows off his erudition by insulting people in a way that's too sly to let them know they've been insulted. He's a wimp with a chip on his shoulder, and LaBeouf makes him easy and fun to watch. Erica Beeney, the screenwriter of ''Shaker Heights,'' and the directors, Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, have created a character, all right. Kelly's harmless alienation, however, hasn't been given a movie to go with it.
It has often been observed that ''Project Greenlight,'' HBO's amateur-contestants-get-to-make-an-honest-to-God-movie series, leaves you in the ironic position of rooting not for the fledgling filmmakers, in all their terminally uncool flop sweat, but for the strictly-business production honchos. Yet on the episodes that aired Aug. 10 and 17, the series revealed, with a candor as startling as the Wizard of Oz getting his curtain swept aside, how the process of making movies has been hijacked -- even at Miramax -- by the forces of marketing; it was hard, for once, not to sympathize with the filmmakers. Stuck with the scarlet letter of an abysmal test-screening score, Rankin and Potelle, in their coyly detached yet pleading way, faced an obstacle far scarier than their shotgun shooting schedule or the perpetually grinning jaws of Chris Moore, that mouthy Boy Scout of intimidation. Instead, they were forced to suffer the indignity of having Rick Schwartz, the senior vice president of production at Miramax, tell them to tone and shape their movie according to marketing concerns. Take out the drama, he decreed; leave in the comedy. In other words, do whatever it takes to sell it to the kids.
That's just what they did, and if the result is held together for about 45 minutes by LaBeouf's smart-boy flippancy, the rest of the movie seems to whittle itself away as it goes along. The filmmakers ended up with a teen flick of Tinkertoy sensitivity in which the assorted story arcs (Kelly gets back at a bully at school, Dad goes into the hospital) are all setup and no follow-through. At the end, when Kelly suddenly stops being everything that he was, it's as if the movie had lost a limb.
Not that it was ever a masterpiece in the making. It's clearer now why Rankin and Potelle had such a miserable, conflicted day directing the scene in the limo between Kelly and Tabby (Amy Smart), the hottie he's got a crush on. The relationship is so thinly drawn that there's nothing to play! Best to experience ''Shaker Heights'' for what it is: not a movie, exactly, but the true season capper of ''Project Greenlight,'' a series that finds its very drama on the road to mediocrity.