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MOVIE REVIEW : Falling in Love With 'Night's' Love Story

August 06, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

American movie romances often lack the special qualities--tenderness, reverie, pain--that make old loves stick so hard. But "That Night" (playing at AMC Century 14), an often marvelous new film adapted from Alice McDermott's 1987 novel, catches some of them. Focusing on a 10-year-old girl who watches, fascinated, as a pageant of forbidden desire and rebellion is enacted in the house across the street, the film laughs, bleeds and cries unashamedly, wears its heart well over its sleeve.

Set, with fulsome nostalgia, in 1961 Long Island, "That Night" has a gentleness and vulnerability we don't expect from big studio American releases. A sinuous love song, "Ruler of My Heart"--recorded in 1961 by Irma Thomas and here wonderfully redone by Lisa Fischer--keys the mood of passion unbound. Through its bluesy vamp, we can sense the sweet, dangerous passions of the young and alienated.

And, though first-time writer-director Craig Bolotin, who wrote Jerry Schatzberg's 1984 obsessive romance comedy "No Small Affair," gets a few clumsy, overstated moments, there's something tonic about "That Night's" unabashed romanticism, its feeling for outcast lovers in an over-comfortable milieu.

Because the narrator is a little girl in the throes of high idealization, the events become heightened, magical, luminous. The romance here is double. It's not just the class-crossing affair of local flirt Sheryl O'Connor (Juliette Lewis) and her hunky, leather-jacketed, hot-rodding beau Rick (C. Thomas Howell), an affair thwarted by Sheryl's mother (Helen Shaver) and neighbors. It's also the crush of little Alice on her idol Sheryl--and on the whole media-soaked notion of all-conquering love she's supposed to incarnate.

Bolotin's movie is more a fairy tale than the book was. When McDermott controlled Alice's narration, it had more sophistication, detachment; she was clearly ultra-literate, over 30. But the movie is told by 10-year-old Eliza Dushku, the appealing, empathetic child actress who plays Alice, and her narration is imbued with her wide-eyed charm. Where McDermott took the romance to a logical, painful conclusion--a climax reminiscent of those great sad last moments in the Kazan-Inge "Splendor in the Grass"--the movie lets us dream longer.

That's not necessarily a softening. Like the little boy in the Losey-Pinter classic "Go-Between," "That Night's" Alice is an innocent moving between the lines of a forbidden romance, but she isn't shattered by it as he was. By keeping us in the dream, Bolotin validates his lovers.

As Sheryl, Lewis is no cliche movie teen dream; she manipulates her foxy, sly face, lithe body and drawl insinuatingly, knowingly. As the bowling-alley greaser Rick, Howell looks more conventionally studly--but, perhaps because he's older than his role, he suggests the book's ironies: that this Rick will lose youth sooner than expected, that this Sheryl is a survivor.

The film (MPAA-rated PG-13), which was shot, appropriately, by Hollywood's "Prince of Darkness," Bruce Surtees, has a special suburbia-at-nightfall look. And a special sound: the choric flow of oldie raunchy rock ballads, by Dion, Roy Orbison, the Marvelettes or the Four Seasons, which, as in "American Graffiti," set the mood and comment on the action.

So far this year, American pictures have focused unusually heavily on child narrators or perspectives; in this sturdy but delicate film, we get one of the most engaging of all recent children's voices. Together, director and actress catch the near-breathless inflections and enthusiasm of a little girl, who, for a season, sees the world as she wants to, as it should be.

'That Night'

Juliette Lewis: Sheryl O'Connor

C. Thomas Howell: Rick

Eliza Dushku: Alice Bloom

Helen Shaver: Ann O'Connor

A Le Studio Canal/Regency Enterprises/Alcor Films presentation of an Arnon Milchan production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director/screenplay Craig Bolotin. Producers Arnon Milchan, Steven Reuther. Executive producers Julie Kirkham, Elliott Lewitt. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly. Costumes Carol Ramsey. Music David Newman. Production design Maher Ahmad. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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