Catherine Hardwicke's two-feature directing career (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) has consisted entirely of films about confused modern teenagers. So she was the credible choice to helm a period piece boasting a "fresh" perspective on Jesus Christ's mysteriously impregnated teenage mother? So goes the apparent logic behind The Nativity Story, a handsome but ultimately hollow staging of one of the lesser-visited periods of the Christian savior's life. There's a reason the Immaculate Conception and subsequent journey of Mary haven't been filmed more often -- the tale may be a staple at Christmas Eve church services, but it doesn't make for very engrossing cinema. Everyone is familiar with how the story climaxes, with the shepherds, the wise men, the frankincense, and the myrrh. But it took Hardwicke's film to remind us how truly dull the preceding events are -- perhaps inescapably dull, no matter what approach a particular director might take. And Hardwicke's approach is nothing if not reserved. She shows none of Thirteen's flare for controversy or inventive camerawork, seeming content to fall in line with a vanilla interpretation that any Christian denomination would gladly give its stamp of approval. Keisha Castle-Hughes doesn't fare much better in the central role, her primary contribution being her appearance, which closely resembles the collective notion of what Mary must have looked like. Not that these Biblical tales tend to have a sense of humor, but Hardwicke might have gotten our attention better by following her brief comedic instincts with the wise men, whose camaraderie is a fleeting delight. Ciarán Hinds attempts to inject dramatic tension as King Herod, the despot bent on neutralizing the threat to his throne. But since the entire audience knows Christ lived to the ripe old age of 33, it's an empty effort. The Nativity Story couldn't even bring out The Passion of the Christ's churchy crowds, grossing a paltry 38 million dollars in the U.S.