Jesse McCartney Finally Hits Big Screen In 'Keith' -- But Is He 'The Next Leonardo DiCaprio'?

'The buzz is happening,' writer/director Todd Kessler says of long-delayed indie flick.

The new film "Keith" is one best enjoyed by those who know nothing about the plot. The movie's characters experience twists and turns, flavored with adversity and triumph, that often leave their future in doubt.

It seems only appropriate, then, that Jesse McCartney's long-awaited film debut should finally emerge after nearly a half-decade of similar uncertainty.

"Making an independent film is a slow process," writer/director Todd Kessler said while speaking with MTV News this week, remembering the film's lengthy birthing process. "You have to pull in all your favors. You have to wait for free equipment to be available and this and that, and you just do it one step at a time."

Three years ago, we visited the Southern California set of the independent teen drama and found a hard-nosed heartthrob eager to prove that he had the chops to follow in the footsteps of heroes Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. At the time, the film had already gone through a long period of so-called "production hell," and McCartney had been selected for the in-demand script over a throng of similar up-and-comers.

"We had Shia LaBeouf attached to it before Jesse, but Miramax didn't feel like he was going to be a big enough star," Kessler laughed. (Lindsay Lohan and Kristen Stewart were also considered for the film's female lead at one point.) "Companies like Miramax were afraid that we could never pull it off, and they wanted us to make [the character of] Keith nicer and quirkier and cuter. We finally wrestled it back out after being theirs twice. It was a long, complicated process, but when they ran into their problems with Disney, I was able to get the project back independently, although on a very small budget, and get it made the way I always wanted to make it."

The onscreen tale that survived was recently screened for us, and the result is a refreshingly unique teen-targeted film unlike anything most studios would be brave enough to release. In essence, the film is about a regimented high school princess (Elisabeth Harnois of "One Tree Hill") with her mind on tennis scholarships and AP classes who falls for mysterious, free-spirited slacker Keith (McCartney) — but that's only where the story begins.

"Every teenager today has seen the John Hughes movies of the '80s," Kessler said of his tone. "There's still a need for those kinds of dramas, but somehow the film industry hasn't found the key to meeting that need."

The centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly McCartney, whose role calls for him to be smart-alecky, endearing, enigmatic and a complete jerk, often all at once. It's the kind of complexity that, if not handled properly, could crush an actor. And although he has appeared onstage and in TV shows and loaned his voice to films like "Alvin & the Chipmunks," this film is a major step forward in his acting career.

"He prepared intensively. When he was on tour [with his music], I understand that he spent hours in front of the mirror in hotel rooms working on his character, working on his stance — even little details, like how he puts his hands in the pocket of his jacket," Kessler marveled. "Everybody who sees the movie now is impressed, and the buzz is happening from those who think he's the next Leonardo DiCaprio."

It's that sort of warm reception that has kept the actor and director working hard on their little film as the years have gone by — coupled with the support of fans who have propelled tracks like McCartney's "Leavin' " to the top of the charts. "There's a young woman in Florida who started an online petition to get the movie in theaters," Kessler said. "Jesse's tremendously popular in Italy. I get a lot of e-mails from Italy. Somebody posted the movie [illegally] on the Internet for download yesterday, and they had to shut them down. I suddenly got e-mailed on Facebook — e-mails from as far-flung as Slovakia, Malaysia and Denmark yesterday — saying, 'I watched the movie three times, and it's better each time I see it!' "

Now, after touring various film festivals, "Keith" finally makes its theatrical debut this weekend. "Gray Area Entertainment is doing a test release in Vegas starting on Friday," Kessler said. "Depending on how that does, hopefully it will platform from there to other markets and around the world.

"Jesse did take a risk when he decided that he wanted to do this role," the director said in praise of his leading man's unorthodox journey to the big screen. "I'm sure not everyone advised him to do it, because it was a risk. But he pulled it off — and he did a fantastic job."

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