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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'My Little Girl' Fails to Grow Up

October 30, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"My Little Girl" (AMC Century 14, Beverly Center Cineplex and Monica 4-Plex) is a heartfelt story about a Main Line Philadelphia 16-year-old who takes a volunteer summer job at a temporary detention shelter for homeless girls. It marks the directorial debut of Connie Kaiserman, an associate producer for Merchant Ivory Productions, who helped back this film, and it also marks the final screen appearance of the late Geraldine Page.

Reportedly completed more than a year ago, it is the kind of socially conscious drama that's more at home on cable or in a movie-of-the-week format. In any form, it runs far too long at nearly two hours. On the plus side, the film has a notable cast, some splendid performances and plenty of people to root for, but is finally too awkward and too unoriginal. It also overreaches when it asks us to believe that its heroine (Mary Stuart Masterson) is so sheltered that she doesn't recognize that a man is a pimp (Peter Gallagher)--even when he comes on with heavy innuendo.

Masterson is lovely and engaging as Franny Bettinger, who becomes increasingly bored with her rich kid's existence as she gets involved in the lives of the girls at the shelter. She's especially drawn to a bright and sensitive 14-year-old black girl (Erika Alexander) whose mother is too mentally unstable to care for her and her 10-year-old sister (Nadeemah Wilmore), who's too traumatized to speak. She also tries to befriend a brash, vulnerable 17-year-old hooker (Traci Lin) with singing aspirations. In addition to Page, seen only briefly as Masterson's encouraging, doughty grandmother, the film also boasts James Earl Jones as the shelter's tough, realistic director and Anne Meara as his assistant. But the standouts are Masterson, Lin and especially Alexander, who is heartbreaking as a figure of dignity and intelligence coping with a hard, bleak life.

Clearly, Kaiserman, who wrote the somewhat autobiographical script with Nan Mason, has a way with young actors, but she has yet to learn how to tell a story on the screen with economy and punch. "My Little Girl" (rated R for strong language) looks great, thanks to distinguished French cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. But it just doesn't have enough going for it.

'MY LITTLE GIRL' A Hemdale release of a Black Swan production in association with Merchant Ivory Productions. Executive producer Ismail Merchant. Line producer Thomas F. Turley. Writer-director Connie Kaiserman. Camera Pierre Lhomme. Music Richard Robbins. Production designer Dan Leigh. Costumes Susan Gammie. Film editor Katherine Wenning. With Mary Stuart Masterson, James Earl Jones, Erika Alexander, Traci Linn, Anne Meara, Geraldine Page, Pamela Payton-Wright, Peter Michael Goetz, Peter Gallagher, George Newbern, Jordan Charney, Nadeemah Wilmore.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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