By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated August 11, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Tao of Steve, a happy-making Gen-X disquisition on sex and romance, is that rare Sundance discovery: a movie with a love of place (Santa Fe), a love of how people talk (with quick-wittedness gaining the edge on glibness), a sense of humor (but not self-indulgence) about its own characters, and, above all, a sense of proportion. It’s a tiny, sunny character study about a fat guy who’s an unlikely chick magnet. And as such it’s a pip.

Of course, first-time director Jenniphr Goodman landed a piece of indie-filmmaker good fortune when she met up with Duncan North, the actual plump Santa Fe pre-school teacher on whom this romantic comedy is based. But she was even luckier to get Donal Logue (The Patriot) in the role of Dex, North’s romantically enhanced, fictionalized self — because the charismatic Logue, with his appealing equanimity and ease in his own Klumpy body, cushions every sharp line with soft heart. (Two favorites: ”Doing stuff is overrated.” ”God is the loneliest dude in the universe.”)

”Steve,” incidentally, refers to a state of manly coolness (cooler than Steve McQueen there is none), the opposite of which is ”Stu.” But The Tao is more concerned with how over-educated, underachieving Dex — who bases his successful seduction skills on wisdom culled from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu — falls in love for real, with a young woman of substance and sanity (a nice debut for Greer Goodman, the director’s sister and, along with North, cowriter of the script). Dex learns, as even a fat, funny underachiever must, that shtick needs to take a holiday for intimacy to occur. And with the wide-open, cornflower blue sky of New Mexico above him and a wittily chosen soundtrack at his back, Dex’s emotional adult education pays off in a well-built character any moviegoer could go for. A-