Filmmakers have to know in this day and age that they're going to take some hits for even hinting at making the mentally ill "cute" in a movie. Writers should know it, directors and the actors playing such parts as well.

So credit cast and crew of "Barefoot" for nerve, for producing a romance-on-the-road comedy about a lying, womanizing gambler who takes a woman freshly escaped from a psychiatric hospital with him to his brother's wedding.

Scott Speedman is Jay, an L.A. love'em-and-leave'em loser who is in Dutch to a loan shark for his gambling debts and on probation for ... a variety of things. The scion of wealth, he's reduced to janitorial work at a psychiatric hospital as part of his probation. Even there, he breaks the rules, befriending the adorably ill, slipping them booze and nudie magazines.

Daisy is new to the place, arriving barefoot (shoes "hurt my feet") and in shock.

Jay saves her from a first-night-in-the-ward rape, and when he skips off to go to a family wedding in Louisiana where he hopes to get money from his dad, Daisy follows him. And since she looks like Evan Rachel Wood, we see why he allows it.

"Barefoot" is "Rainman" meets "Benny & Joon," a mentally ill child experiencing the world and love for the first time while on the road. Daisy is utterly naive to the ways of the world. She's prone to blurting out her first impression of someone, such as Jay's brother's bride at the wedding:

"God, you're so skinny! I can see your bones!"

She picks up petals after the flower girl ("You dropped these"). Wood makes Daisy's doe-eyed innocence engaging and very funny between the moments when she breaks down, as disturbed people inevitably do.

Speedman (of the "Underworld" movies) makes his easygoing rogue character work, even as we're scratching our heads at the ways Jay seems to be in denial over Daisy's condition -- whatever that is. He takes her on her first airline flight, where the toilet frightens her. He wants her to share driving duties and sends her into a store to buy food, even though we can see almost every outside world experience is new to her.

Director Andrew Fleming ("Dick," "Nancy Drew") gets everything he can out of this slight, sweet and sentimental material. Casting J.K. Simmons as the blustering, threatening medical chief of the psychiatric hospital and Treat Williams and Kate Burton as Jay's parents, confused by this weird beauty their son has brought into their lives, works.

And "Barefoot" dodges that sentimentalize-the-schizophrenic trap by having Jay not flirt with Daisy, and by giving her very real problems that could be caused by any number of things -- things that don't necessarily call for institutionalization.

But for all its quirks and efforts to immunize itself from criticism, "Barefoot" is never much more than utterly predictable and conventional.

'BAREFOOT'

* *

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, partial nudity, strong language, one scene of violence)
Cast: Scott Speedman, Evan Rachel Wood, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, J.K. Simmons
Director: Andrew Fleming
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes