DENZEL Washington knows a thing or three about acting. And that experience is the driving force behind "Antwone Fisher," an assured directorial debut that goes straight for the tear ducts.

Based on the real-life Fisher's autobiography, the story is conventionally powerful enough. But Washington gives it that actor's dimension -- not only behind the camera but in front of it.

As naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, he's the drama's anchor man, an emotional detective, as it were, trying to unravel the tightly wound mystery of Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke).

An angry sailor who has been forced to undergo three psychiatric sessions for frequent brawling, he's about as hostile a patient as Jerome has seen. For reasons that the movie doesn't explain -- but does it need to? -- Jerome decides to help this troubled young man.

"I hear you like to fight," says Jerome.

"It's the only way some people have to learn," comes the sullen reply.

"But you pay the price for teaching them," observes Jerome.

The fight is on, between two powerful opponents, both determined to stand their ground, but unable to win until they radically alter their tactics and moral outlook.

We learn Antwone was born in prison and his convicted mother never reclaimed him. He grew up in Cleveland under the ruthless heel of Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson), an African American foster mother given to nasty racial epithets. Further revelations show us even more traumatic events -- which left Antwone the tortured man he is today.

The trust between Jerome and Antwone grows. But those three sessions are done. And Antwone is a long way from resolving conflict without his fists, or learning how to strike up a romantic relationship with Cheryl (Joy Bryant), the woman he's had his eye on for some time. It's clear he needs closure from the past. But where do Jerome's responsibilities end and Antwone's begin?

Even though "Antwone Fisher" aims unequivocally for that "Beautiful Mind" category of filmmaking, in which difficult human complexities meet stand-up-and-cheer solutions, it's very affecting.

That's primarily thanks to the performances. As Antwone, newcomer Luke aches with vulnerability. Bryant, also a first-timer, is someone to watch in the future. But Washington is both rainmaker and marquee prince. Even as his character defers to Antwone, he's quietly in charge. His character's emotions frame ours, as he works to reach a resistant soul and make himself emotionally availabile to his wife (Salli Richardson). This may be called "Antwone Fisher," but it's really about Jerome and deservedly so.

ANTWONE FISHER (PG-13, 113 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity and emotionally distressing material. Area theaters.

Derek Luke plays a troubled sailor that Navy psychiatrist Denzel Washington tries to heal in "Antwone Fisher."