There are so many genuine characters out there that you have to wonder why a lot of contemporary documentary filmmakers aren't doing better work and telling better stories.

Take, for example, comic documentarians. In many cases, they resort to taking potshots at their subjects rather than letting the subject do all the damage. (Michael Moore immediately leaps to mind.)

That's one of things that makes "American Movie" so refreshing. This surprisingly hilarious yet sympathetic documentary doesn't make its subjects look better than they should — but at least it lets them look ridiculous on their own terms.

It also revolves around a theme that has needed to be explored for quite some time — low-budget, independent filmmaking. (Not too surprisingly, "American Movie" was the darling of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where the film took home the biggest award, the Grand Jury Prize, in the documentary competition.)

Rather than following a more conventional filmmaker, documentarian Chris Smith decided to chronicle the misadventures of Mark Borchardt, a failed Wisconsin writer/director.

Borchardt's latest project is "Northwestern," an ambitious, feature-length drama that is a marked departure from his usual horror shorts. Unfortunately, he's run into a series of financial difficulties, including mounting credit card and telephone bills, not to mention some long-overdue, child-support payments.

Desperately needing start-up money, Borchardt decides to finish his latest, three-years-in-the-making short film, "Coven" — believing that he can sell enough video copies to at least start work on "Northwestern."

However, he still needs money to finish that project. So he hits up family and friends for cash — with the only willing investor being his eccentric uncle, Bill, a miser who lives in a trailer home, even though he's sitting on a rather large nest egg.

He also has to persuade Bill and others to be in the movie, which proves to be an even bigger challenge.

"American Movie" may be comedic in tone, but it's not all laughs — Borchardt's substance-abuse problems are brought up, as are his other foibles.

But again, Smith would rather show his subject as human (including scenes showing Borchardt's loving attentions to his three children) than rake him over the coals.

The result is warm, even touching at times, and yields some very funny moments. (In one of the film's best scenes, Borchardt informs one of his cast members that he wants him to pronounce the movie's title with a hard "o," like the word "cove," because otherwise it would "sound like oven.")

"American Movie" is rated R for considerable profanity, violence (both depicted and real), gore (again, both depicted and real) and brief drug use (marijuana).