PARK CITY -- This meter maid is no pretty Rita. Dowdy and quiet, Claire (Samantha Morton) lives vicariously through insights she romanticizes about the owners of the upscale Brentwood-area vehicles she tickets.

A stirring story of one seemingly unremarkable woman's fortitude and inner beauty, "Expired" inspired its world-premiere audience here at the Sundance Film Festival. Told with a robust female perspective, "Expired" may win its widest appreciation as a cable offering, seemingly perfect for Lifetime.

In this smart story about people who never get center stage in life, Samantha Morton stars as meter-maid Claire, who lives with her mute, stroke-stricken mother (Teri Garr). Shy and inarticulate, Claire doesn't attract notice. Admittedly vulnerable, Claire is starved for attention and through social default begins to entertain the crude advances of Jay (Jason Patric), a bitter male colleague. A hostile lout of onetime promise, Jay too lives in essential isolation: His hostile personality precludes any real emotional involvement -- no male friends no female relationships.

On their surfaces both Claire and Jay could be deemed losers, yet screenwriter/director Cecilia Miniucchi musters our sympathies for their personal predicaments. Charting the course of their most uneven romance, we appreciate that Claire's toleration of Jay's crudity is not mere desperation, but rather her amazing capacity to distill the goodness in someone.

To her credit, filmmaker Cecilia Miniucchi does not manipulate heartstrings or resort to generic conventions to serve up a touchy-feely love tale. The narrative is unraveled with courage, depicting Claire's shortcomings and, quite remarkably, mining Jay's decencies. Truly, we care about Claire and if anyone can rescue Jay from himself, it is she.

Although its freeze-frame ending may seem too optimistic and enigmatic, "Expired" is a remarkable romance of no easy answers; to wit, like real life.

Samantha Morton's vigorous and self-effacing portrayal of Claire is wonderful: We see Claire's bravery and her incredible strength to endure personal assaults and indelicacies. Truly, she rises above her lot in life. Similarly edgy, Jason Patric is terrific as Claire's boorish admirer, not flinching from his character's nastiness and inner conflicts. In a dual role as Claire's invalid mother and selfish aunt, Teri Garr invigorates the story with her supple versatility.

Technical contributions are exemplary, especially Natalie Sanfilippo's revealing production design. From the kitsch of Claire's dwelling to the macho-techno void of Jay's apartment, she clues us to their inner worlds.

(no production company listed)
Producer: Jeffrey Coulter
Screenwriter/director: Cecilia Miniucchi
Executive producers: Fred Roos, Antoni Stutz
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designer: Natalie Sanfilippo
Casting director: John Jackson
Music: Jeffrey Coulter
Claire Barney: Samantha Morton
Jay: Jason Patric
Mother Barney/Aunt Tilda: Teri Garr
Running time -- 112 minutes