What are kids today really like? And after what we have suffered at the hands of "youth movies" over the last few years, does anyone want to know?
You might, if you'd spent some time with the engaging cast of "Seven Minutes in Heaven" (opening at the Beverly Cineplex on Friday). This sensitively performed, very special comedy is by film makers whose memory of those perilous days of high school, where no emotion is a small one, is tender and acute.
Set in an idyllic American small town, the film's time frame is compressed: the week or so when honors student Natalie Becker (Jennifer Connelly) is contentedly at home alone, as her father, a widower, has to go on the road again. She's not undisturbed for long.
Jeff (Byron Thames), small and defensively comic, Natalie's friend for all their 15 years, plants himself at her doorstep after another blow-up with his stepfather. And there are countless gossipy, drop-in visits from the bubbly, bubble-headed Polly (Maddie Corman), best friend to both, whose talk about sex far exceeds her experience. (It would have to, unless she's Xaviera Hollander in teen disguise.)
Polly, with her radar for men, has just crossed the path of baseball rookie star Zoo Knudsen (Billy Wirth) and declares them star-crossed. She's just ricocheted from being "in love" with the handsome Casey (Alan Boyce), an upper-division student who doesn't even know she's alive.
It's vulnerable, reserved Natalie who has caught Casey's practiced eye, and he begins a gentle campaign of seduction--complete with that most disarming ploy, an up-front admission that monogamy isn't his style. (One look tells you that fidelity is hers.)
Love and sex; trust, friendship and family--these are the film's concerns. (It's also a movie with more attractive, interesting men per capita than anywhere short of the French cinema. It saves one of the most engaging, Terry Kinney as Bill, the savvy New York photographer, for last.)
"Seven Minutes" is the singular beacon that it is because of its tolerance, its lack of cynicism or exploitation and the evenhanded affection in which it holds all its characters. Their values can be as old-fashioned as Natalie's chastity and studiousness, as blithely trendy as Polly's innocent pan-sexuality, or as cheerfully lustful as the men attracted by Natalie.
Not even the adults are villains or stereotypes. Jeff's stepfather is humorless and awkward, but he's there for the boy. Natalie's father (Michael Zaslow) can listen to his beloved daughter even when he suspects the worst.
Implicit in these adults' attitudes is a certain amount of understanding and trust, something of a movie rarity (although Jeff's mother's ride-it-out approach after her son has taken off might possibly cause a few parental teeth to grind).
And even within their film's light, comic framework, writer Jane Bernstein and co-writer/director Linda Feferman have caught the particularly American subtext of kids in remade or single-parent families; kids whose real hunger is for the reassurance of their parents' love.
It's this rare undertone that lets you forgive the film's few technical raw edges or its slightly wobbly tone, from near farce to gentle drama and back.
Other of its technical elements, like the wonderfully evocative production design or every bit of the casting, down to the photograph of Natalie's leukemia-victim mother, are glowingly right. (Casting was by Aleta Wood-Chappelle, but these details might be laid at the door of producer Fred Roos, a legendary casting director in the years before he became a producer.)
Jennifer Connelly (from "Labyrinth" and "Once Upon a Time in America") makes Natalie sweet but uncloying, perfect but not priggish. She's enchanting. Screen newcomer Maddie Corman has probably the hardest job, to keep Polly's Masters and Johnson attack on life tolerable, and she succeeds wonderfully. And Byron Thames' Jeff is funny, needy, a pain in the neck and a boy to cherish, all at once. Of all the remaining marvelous young actors, you might mark the Steppenwolf Theater's Terry Kinney, who plays the gently self-deprecating New York photographer, as someone definitely to watch.
What "Seven Minutes to Heaven" suffers from is unfortunate timing and an almost paralytic lack of enthusiasm on the part of its distributing studio. It has been kept alive on festival circuits, from the U.S. Film Festival (where it won a special merit award in youth comedy) to the Women in Film Festival only last week. It's one of the few movies around for whole families to talk about and think over. These days, that's a very great deal.
'SEVEN MINUTES IN HEAVEN' A Warner Bros. release of a Zoetrope Studios and FR Productions presentation. Producer Fred Roos. Director Linda Feferman. Screenplay Jane Bernstein, Feferman. Production design Vaughan Edwards. Camera Steven Fierberg. Associate producer Mark Silverman. Editor Marc Laub. Music Robert Kraft. Costumes Dianne Finn-Chapman. Art director Thomas A. Walsh, set decorator Debra Schutt. With Jennifer Connelly, Byron Thames, Maddie Corman, Alan Boyce, Michael Zaslow, Polly Draper, Marshall Bell, Billy Wirth, Terry Kinney, Michael Higgins, Paul Martell.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parental guidance suggested).