There seems to be a mini-genre which the new film Shopgirl belongs in, a bitter-sweet one predicated on quiet optimism, usually set in a contemporary American urban environment (LA seems to be a favourite location) where the leading character (or characters, since these films to be multilayered) are trying to connect to other people and find themselves. Included in the the LA-set canon are Willard Carrol’s Playing by Heart (1998) and Miranda July’s well-received Me, You and Everyone We Know (2005) while Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) makes a New York contribution to the roster. Shopgirl is the latest addition to the LA batch and features a grown-up Claire Danes, who has morphed into a kind of contemporary version of Lauren Bacall as well as one of the most charming and intelligent American actresses working at the moment.

Based on a novella by Steve Martin and at points dressed like an existentialist fairy tale, Shopgirl is a warm film which, despite its style slippages into genre conventions here and there, is a welcome respite from the norm as far as cinematic depictions of relationships go. Danes plays Mirabelle Butterfield, an aspiring artist who makes ends meet working in the Beverly Hills’ Saks Fifth Avenue department store. She has her Cinderella moment when millionaire Ray Porter (Steve Martin) initiates an affair with her. Mirabelle falls in love with the aloof, commitment-averse Porter, a strange, a world-weary figure topped by a shock of white hair.

Hovering around the main storyline hinged on Mirabelle and Porter is Schwartzman’s goofy Jeremy, a slacker who sets about to pursue his dream in the music business after Mirabelle gently lets go of him to be with Porter. Jeremy is something of an ugly duck who morphes into a swan towards the end of the film and provides moments of tender, quirky humour (as well as some of the highlights of the film).

Shopgirl is, among many things, a tale of a young woman’s transtion into adulthood, propelled by an unrequited love with an older man. An old story for sure, but with Danes’s talent and Anand Tucker’s honest, elegant touch on the direction, it works. Shopgirl also shows how good actors can light up the screen with realist inner lives. Danes’s face and her immense expressiveness alone make this film worthwhile.

Shopgirl opens in the UK on 20/01/06.