Tim Kirkman sounds exhausted and exhilarated on the telephone. It’s Thursday evening, the night before an exciting and not-easily realized landmark: the simultaneous opening of an intensely personal and lovingly crafted film in New York City and Los Angeles. Kirkman has just finished a late meal, and he’s also gotten some thrilling news: a good review in The New York Times.

“It’s just been read to me–it’s fantastic!” says the delighted 38-year-old Kirkman of Stephen Holden’s appreciative notice. For a fragile, low-budget indie like Loggerheads, support from major critics is crucial and Holden’s review–along with a similarly enthusiastic notice that was published in the Los Angeles Times–will undoubtedly steer people into a film that lacks an obvious plot hook and major stars.

Loggerheads is the tender and poignant story of estranged families, members of which are scattered throughout the Tar Heel State. In Asheville, a troubled, mentally unstable woman (Bonnie Hunt) decides to look for the son she gave up for adoption. In Eden, a minister and his wife (Chris Sarandon and Tess Harper) obsess over the new neighbors who might be gay while avoiding discussion of their estranged son. And in Kure Beach, a young, gay, HIV-positive man named Mark (Kip Pardue) sleeps in the sand with the endangered loggerhead turtles that come ashore to lay eggs.

Kirkman based Loggerheads on a very sad, true story he encountered while making his first feature, Dear Jesse, a cinematic “valentine” to the gay-bashing Sen. Helms. Kirkman was introduced to Diana Rickettes, a woman who’d given her son up for adoption and later encountered state laws that impeded her ability to locate him, despite the fact that he was also conducting his own search. When Rickettes finally discovered her son’s identity, she found that he’d died of AIDS the previous year.

Thanks to Kirkman’s ingenious script, what could have been an unbearably downbeat movie instead becomes a story of emotional growth and courage. The film elides the expected deathbed scene, instead focusing on pivotal sea changes within its characters. To better tell his story, Kirkman came up with a much-noticed fractured temporal narrative. Although in the hands of idea-deprived filmmakers such a narrative might become precious, it was an obvious solution for Kirkman that had nothing to do with earning a merit badge in Tarantino-ism. (“It came from the story,” Kirkman said. “I thought about when the most important events were, and the structure evolved from that.”)

Kirkman, a gay man, has a deep and, in some ways, traditional Southern background. He grew up in Wingate, N.C., in a community dominated by Wingate University, a conservative Baptist institution. Although his parents raised him in the Southern Baptist faith, Kirkman remembers an atmosphere very different from the present one in which intolerant Christian leaders such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson have hitched their churches to the Republican Party. (“It was considered vulgar to brandish your faith about in public,” Kirkman says.)

This somewhat conservative outlook informs Loggerheads, as well. There’s a scene in which Mark, the gay refugee from religious bigotry, surprises the atheist who will become his lover by admitting to a continuing attachment to his faith. It’s a subtle scene, and only a filmmaker with Kirkman’s background could have written it.

After graduating from N.C. State with a landscape design degree in 1990, Kirkman left North Carolina for New York. Dear Jesse, his 1998 debut, earned him excellent notices and numerous film festival slots. After a film version of David Drake’s one-man play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me in 2000, Kirkman turned his attention to Loggerheads. With a pace that many indie filmmakers with a short résumé would envy, Loggerheads went from page to screen quickly and harmoniously–a happy set of circumstances due, no doubt, to Kirkman’s excellent reputation in the filmmaking community.

After working on the script on and off for several years, Kirkman showed it to Dear Jesse producer Gill Holland in late 2003. Cindy Tolan, a veteran of films by Rebecca Miller, John Sayles and others, came on board shortly thereafter and quickly cast the film. In March 2004 Kirkman was scouting locations in North Carolina, and three months later the film was shot in a brisk 23 days on a half-million dollar budget. Last January, Loggerheads premiered at Sundance and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize.

Like his fellow North Carolinian Junebug director Phil Morrison, Kirkman is a transplanted New Yorker who has found fertile territory in exploring the myths and realities of Southern living. “People are surprised to find out that there are ‘out’ gays in North Carolina,” Kirkman says. “But what I get even more is surprise that there are intelligent people in the South,” says Kirkman, who switches to a mock yokel accent and continues, “I end up saying–‘Yep, we do some purty good book-lurnin’ down thar.’”

While in Junebug Morrison toyed with Southern conventions in a self-conscious way by, for example, including an archetypal outsider artist who specializes in Civil War paintings with overt racial and sexual symbols, Kirkman’s North Carolina–for all the lovingly photographed scenic details–is presented as a more ordinary locale. In a particularly adept touch, only the characters in the small town of Eden speak with pronounced Southern accents.

While Kirkman has been delighted by the positive critical and audience response, he’s also finding some unusual reactions. “One priest came up to me and said, ‘You know, it’s interesting that your atheist character [George, the man who befriends Mark in Kure Beach] is the most Christ-like. He’s selfless and constantly helping others.’”

In the end, Loggerheads is about simple decency. With any luck, the work of Kirkman and Morrison will go a long way toward correcting and deepening the coarse image of the state promulgated by the gargoyle called Jesse Helms. Who would be a better symbol? Kirkman has a laughing response:

“Andy Griffith.”

Loggerheads opens this week in local art houses, and Kirkman will make several local appearances: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 9 p.m. at NCSU’s Witherspoon Campus Cinema; Friday, Oct. 21, 7 and 9:20 p.m. at the Rialto in Raleigh; Saturday, Oct. 22, 2:15 and 4:15 p.m. at the Galaxy in Cary; Sunday, Oct. 23, 2:10 and 4:30 p.m. at the Varsity in Chapel Hill and 7 p.m. at the Rialto.