Tre, the third feature by filmmaker Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes, Americanese) continues his theme of exploring relationships, marriage, fidelity and friendship. The film centers on four friends: Kakela (Kimberly-Rose Wolter, who also starred in Charlotte Sometimes and co-wrote this film), an aspiring writer, her boyfriend Gabe (Erik McDowell), Gabe's best friend Tre (newcomer Daniel Cariaga) and Nina (Alix Koromzay), an aspiring actress/waitress who's separated from her husband.

As the film opens Tre, the slacker son of a wealthy family, shows up at Gabe and Kakela's house, where he occasionally lives, only to find Nina has taken over his room after leaving her husband. Angry sparks fly between Nina and Tre from their first encounter, but annoyance soon gives way to more amicable pursuits between them. Nina is on the outs from her husband because he kissed another woman for ten seconds at a party; when her friends question whether that's really a reason to leave a marriage, she notes that "ten seconds is a long time to kiss someone you're not supposed to be kissing" and then methodically counts ten seconds aloud to drive home her point.
When Kakela discovers Nina has started hooking up with Tre, she's both miffed and intrigued . Nina's dalliance makes her question both her own devotion to Gabe, whose marriage proposal she has just accepted, and the chemistry between her and Tre, which is getting harder to ignore. With all this sexual chemistry running amuck, you just know things are going to go badly, and they do. Tre can't deny his attraction to his best friend's girlfriend; Kakela tries to maintain boundaries while dipping a toe over the edge of them; she begs Gabe to make Tre leave, but Gabe can't bear to be without his best friend and refuses to choose Kakela over Tre.

The film explores the complexities of friendship and loyalty, and the ways in which we flirt with disaster that sometimes push things over the edge. Tre loves Gabe like a brother, and the two have sworn no woman will ever come between them, but Kakela tests his devotion to his friend. Where a lot of filmmakers would feel the need to spell out all the complexities of hte relationship between Gabe and Tre -- how they met, what they've been through together, why Gabe is willing to let Tre just show up in his life whenever it's convenient -- Byler understands that it's enough to know that the two are close, and let their obvious affection for each other speak for itself.

We aren't given to know the entire personal histories of the other characters, either. We know, mostly from well-crafted dialog that never feels too expository, that Kakela is a writer (or, as Tre more accurately puts it, an "aspiring writer"), that her parents died when she was young, and that she has enough money to live in a really nice house and pursue writing without having to worry about how she's going to pay the rent. We know that Tre comes from a wealthy family, that he feels his relationship with his mother is more about her than about him, that his relationship with his stepfather is dicey, and that he's probably disappointed his family more than once. We know that Gabe trains horses for a living, that he and Tre have known each other for a long time, and that Tre and Gabe used to work together. And we know that Nina is a struggling actress who sidelines as a waitress, whose marriage was probably on the rocks long before her husband engaged in that 10-second kiss.

What's brilliant about the script is that we're able to extrapolate all that information about the four leads from the sparsest of dialog, and if you think that's an easy thing to accomplish, chances are you've never tried to write a script. Doling out the information your audience needs about your characters without going heavy-handed with the exposition is a craft that many filmmakers never learn to do well, and writing believable dialog that sounds the way real people talk and interact is even harder. I could far easier make a list of writers who don't write good dialog and interaction than writers who do, and Byler would be numbered among the latter.

One of Byler's strengths as a filmmaker is his understanding of human relationships and his ability to show the range of complex emotions and relationships through this finely-honed dialog. An early scene in the film has the four friends at the outdoor patio table the morning after Kakela has discovered Tre and Nina have been messing around. Byler captures perfectly the real way in which people interact -- the lingering eye contact, the hint of disapproval projected by a raised eyebrow, the tension and chemistry that something as simple as lighting a cigarette or getting up to get a glass of juice can convey. There's more undercurrent in this one scene than a lot of filmmakers manage to put into an entire film, and that's a testament to both the talent of the actors and to Byler's ability to help his cast grasp the subtext of their characters and how each would act and react as they play off each other.

Frankly, I saw more than one film at Sundance this year that had nowhere near the caliber of direction, story and perfomances that I saw in Tre, and I'd like to see Byler continue to gain recognition as a filmmaker. Charlotte Sometimes was showcased by Roger Ebert at his Overlooked Film Festival a couple years ago and won several fest awards, and Americanese, Byler's adaptation of the novel by Shawn Wong, won the audience award and a special jury award for ensemble cast at SXSW. I liked Americanese, but much as I enjoyed that film, I think Byler is at his best when he directs material he writes on his own, and he's at the top of his game with Tre.

Tre opens in Los Angeles today, on February 8 in Chicago at Facets, and February 15 in San Francisco at the Four Star Theater. We'll keep you apprised as more dates are added.