Before he became one of the most influential and arguably the most under-appreciated directors of the New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (and long before he became one of the many New Hollywood filmmakers to turn into a parody of themselves in the '80s and '90s), Alan J. Pakula was a movie producer of no mean talent: partnering himself with Robert Mulligan, a director of mostly forgotten prominence during the 1960s, the two men were responsible for a small cache of films that, if not masterpieces, deserve more attention than anyone has given them in decades (such as Up the Down Staircase and Love with the Proper Stranger). Only To Kill a Mockingbird remains particularly famous out of their seven collaborations, and I at least wouldn't be too quick to call it the greatest of those seven, either: at their best, these films are smart, tiny jewels of character study and observation of events unfolding in a particular environment, sensitively mounted with a clean, unobtrusive style, and well-acted by casts assembled more for their skill than their name recognition.

I do not know what happened to create a rift between the Pakula and Mulligan, or if indeed it was a rift at all; perhaps just the gentle separation of two business partners who no longer needed each other. But in 1969, Pakula kicked off his own directorial career with The Sterile Cuckoo, a sensitively mounted character study that looks a whole lot more like the films he produced for Mulligan than the '70s thrillers that have mostly made his reputation in later years. That said, the film is anything but a lamentable waste of his or anyone else's talents: age has not been particularly kind to it, but its blend of very sober-minded drama and breezy sexual frankness - anchored by Liza Minelli in a sublime performance - is all carried off with far more competence and assurance than many directorial debuts have enjoyed.

The film takes place over nine months: beginning with the first day of college for two young people, and ending near to the end of the school year. Those two people are Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) and "Pookie" Adams (Minelli) - he a painfully quiet, earnest young man, she a blithe chatterbox, full of ideas and whimsies, and an aversion to anybody with the temerity to behave like a normal, square member of society - people she disdainfully refers to as "creeps" and "weirdos". In modern parlance, Pookie is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, perhaps one of the very first: a crazy, vital young woman who shows an uptight young man how to actually enjoy life instead of just shuffling along through it. But what Pakula and his screenwriter, Alvin Sargent knew (and presumably, John Nichols, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based) that most later filmmakers don't quite get is that Manic Pixie Dream Girls, if transferred to real life, would not be very pleasant or very stable people; and that is why, as the year progresses, Pookie goes from being a charming introduction for Jerry to the worlds of love and sex, to a clingy, needy emotional wreck driven almost to a psychotic fit (driven far enough, anyway, to invent a pregnancy long before any outward signs of strains have entered the relationship).

Structurally, the story is about one thing: Jerry and how he responds to this interesting, flighty, draining person. But that is not the story that Pakula was interested in telling (allegedly, he was responsible for re-framing Sargent's first draft to be far more sympathetic to Pookie), and everything about the way he frames the action and presents his two leads makes the film something else: a not-unsympathetic but essentially clinical study of a profoundly broken person. Pookie comes from what we're given to understand, over the course of the film, to have been a cold, loveless home: her mother died in childbirth, and her father has apparently never accepted her as his own; the sterile cuckoo of the title, if you will. This has given her an intense fear of abandonment and a crushing, desperate need to love and be loved, and Jerry is literally the first male she set eyes on after leaving her father's home. She falls in love with him just because he's there, the first opportunity she has to find another human being to give her the warmth that she's been denied for 18 years.None of this is made explicit in the film; but at the same time, it doesn't seem possible to come up with any other reading. That has much to do with Minelli's performance, a heartbreaking bit of work indeed

For all that, Pakula clearly does not want us to pity Pookie, nor to identify with her. The Sterile Cuckoo is a movie unusually devoid of close-up shots: in fact it possesses a rather shocking plethora of extreme long shots of action. That is to say, many of the shots have the appearance of an establishing shot, yet go on for some length and have dialogue overlaid, so that we're clearly watching the plot happening in real time, at such a distance that it's not always clear what's going on. The director is keeping us a firm arm's length away from the protagonists, treating them as bugs in a jar, to be studied and understood but never sympathised with; not at all. Pookie especially is more of a subject than a character; the effect is not unlike the feeling we get in some of Kubrick's films that we're watching the plot with an omniscient degree of removal from the action, although the means that Pakula takes to create that feeling are completely different.

It is an odd thing to make such a claim for a movie that apparently wants to depict common behaviors, easy to relate to. First love in all its awkwardness, the pain of realising that first love isn't for keeps, and the beautiful absurdity of losing one's virginity; these are all the kinds of things that are typically played for the (presumably teenaged) audience's identification and recognition. Here, in a film that seems much more "for adults, by adults", these things are all presented as elements in a case file. The sex scene almost in the movie's dead middle is a masterpiece (easily the best part of the film), not least because it is so well-observed: Jerry's reluctance and desire crashing against each other, Pookie's nervousness manifesting as impatience. But it is also a scene that lacks virtually any trace of emotional resonance. Filmed almost entirely in one extraordinarily long take (long takes abound in this film, but this is the longest by far), the camera becomes a merciless observer, moving only to keep the actors in frame but never closing in on their bodies or movements. It simply watches, watches with maddening intensity, turning these young people into objects.

If all that makes the film sound bloodless, it really isn't. It's just a character study with a tremendously pronounced psychoanalytic bent (Pakula would find a way to make a similar study with a great deal more humanism and less clinical detachment in his next film and first masterwork, Klute). While I wouldn't call it a great film, it is a pretty good one, and more moving than I perhaps am giving it credit for. It's biggest problem, I suspect, is that the director relied a bit too much on a form he'd developed with Mulligan, but his own interests were far more analytical than Mulligan's much warmer humanism.

Okay, that's not the biggest problem: there's a horrid, quintessentially late-'60s easy listening folk song by The Sandpipers called "Come Saturday Morning" that keeps popping up on the soundtrack, particularly in a few poorly-executed montages (though in 1969, I don't suppose filmmakers knew how absurdly over-used the montage would become, and so did not studiously avoid it). It's a goopy sop to the romantic young folk (with bad taste) who were not apparently this movie's target audience, and the tone it sets is jarringly at odds with the story and Pakula's presentation thereof. But no matter; bad soundtracks happen, especially in those days. And if you take that out, The Sterile Cuckoo is still a credible first try for a filmmaker who didn't quite know what he wanted to make films about, just yet.