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MOVIE REVIEW

Provocative 'Dear Wendy' is a loaded missive from Von Trier

You may enjoy ''Dear Wendy" more than you probably ought to, especially if you have a soft spot for Lars Von Trier's sardonic deconstructions of American culture. Taking wobbly aim at our country's complicated love affair with guns, the movie's the very definition of a cheap shot. The young cast convinces you of the characters' screwy ardor, though, and the film is of a piece. ''Dogville" is the better movie, but this one's less hateful, and, oddly enough, I do mean that as a recommendation.

Of course, Von Trier hasn't directed ''Dear Wendy" -- Thomas Vinterberg has, from Von Trier's script. Vinterberg made 1998's ''The Celebration," the best of the early Dogme films, and then fell flat on his face with the all-star romantic epic ''It's All About Love." The new film shows the director edging back into good graces, and he certainly has an interest in human beings his screenwriter lacks.

Still, ''Dear Wendy" takes place in Lars-land, an unmoored and unnamed American town that feels equal parts inner city and old West. All the men work in the local mine while, up top, shopkeepers quake in fear of violent teenage gangs that never materialize. Young Dick (Jamie Bell, the scruffy balletomane from ''Billy Elliot") is a self-described loser who one day buys a toy gun as a gag birthday present for a kid he doesn't like; his equally disaffected co-worker Stevie (Mark Webber) takes one look and announces that it's a 6.6 5mm double action revolver. Real, in other words, just like Stevie's prized 1896 pistol, which he has named ''Badsteel."

And so begins a religion, to the strains of glorious old Zombies classics like ''Time of the Season" on the soundtrack. The two boys set up a clubhouse temple in an abandoned mine where they can fire potshots. Stevie handles the hardware while Dick takes on the ideology and the shooting. They call themselves the Dandies and go about gathering recruits, since, as Dick says, ''Pacifists with guns is such a great idea, it's practically our duty to share it with others."

In short order, they've attracted the crippled Huey (Chris Owen), his put-upon little brother (Michael Angarano), and Susan (Alison Pill), a pallid shopkeeper's daughter whose breasts grow along with her newfound self-confidence. The others find themselves transformed, too. ''Suddenly I was one of the people with guns," Dick writes to Wendy in the long and flowery letter that serves as the movie's narrative track.

Who's Wendy? Let's just say she's Dick's true love and leave it at that. ''Dear Wendy" is loaded with ideas, some half-baked, some dead-on, some just stupid, and Vinterberg throws them at the screen willy-nilly. Can you worship an instrument of power without using it? Can a romance with weaponry be anything other than naive? Does a need for self-importance create a need for victims? Thank the filmmakers for asking but don't expect any answers.

The arrival of a new conscript, a hardheaded young gunslinger named Sebastian (Danso Gordon, nicely wary), stirs the Dandies' pot in predictable ways, and the fact that this character is black is meant to be an arrant provocation. Since Von Trier and Vinterberg understand America's racial landscape rather less well than they understand Sanskrit, the gambit fails.

''Dear Wendy" regains its formal footing, though, in a climax that pits the group against the forces of the town sheriff (Bill Pullman) in an absurdist parody of a high-noon shootout with creepy (if unwarranted) echoes of Columbine. There's one further attempt to outrage: the strains of ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic" rising over the carnage a la Bowie's ''Young Americans" over the end credits of ''Dogville." Forgive us if we're merely amused.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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