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MOVIE REVIEW : Magical Realism Adds to Intriguing 'Angela'


An award winner at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, "Angela" has taken more than a year to get a theatrical release and the reasons why are symptomatic of the intellectual stultification affecting the film business. How do you describe the film in simple and, especially, marketable terms? You don't. And so it lingers.

But it's here now and that's good, even if it is unmistakably the work of a first-time director. Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur, employs grand gestures and even magical realism to tell her story of two sisters--Angela (Miranda Stuart Rhyne) and Ellie (Charlotte Blythe)--whose mother, Mae (Anna Thomson), is a severe manic depressive. The family, led by the girls' father, Andrew (John Ventimiglia), moves frequently, presumably because of the mother's illness (one of the film's failings is that the essential is often unspoken, while the nonessential is deafening). And Angela's response to her peculiar existence is the subject of the film.

This isn't a tale of child abuse, exactly. Mae isn't evil, although why she isn't medicated is never explained (Angela makes reference at one point to the family being Christian Scientist, but I think it's supposed to be a joke). But Angela, who has the younger, far more innocent Ellie in thrall, creates a line of theological defense that ascribes their mother's state to something demonic, something that can be controlled through elaborate rituals of their own creation.

This, amid the hallucinated angels and devils and weird sisters of the night that Angela encounters, is what gives the film its intellectual weight (its beauty can be credited to cinematographer Ellen Kuras). What Miller is showing us are the roots of religion in fear and ignorance: Angela, visibly angry at her life and deprived of an enemy, devises ways of fending off Satan. If they get really clean, Angela tells Ellie, their souls will be pure and their mother will be well. So she smears both their naked bodies with mud and immerses them in a nearby stream (foreshadowing the baptism-by-semi-organized-religion that Angela undergoes later in the same river). It's a typical child's game--the step-on-the-crack, break-your-mother's-back type of spontaneous superstition--pushed to a dangerous length by the extremes of the two girls' unhappy life.

They are, basically, alone. Their father is distracted by their mother (Angela watches through the floor vent as they either have sex or battle her demons) and their mother, played with fragile volatility by Thomson, is a cipher: Her brain chemistry decides who she is at a given moment, so she's really no one at all. Angela and Ellie exist in a solitude untempered by adults and what happens is tragedy.

The whole family resembles a set of crystal on a dashboard of a '57 panel truck doing 80 on a street in Sarajevo. Something's got to give, and despite her occasional lapses into cinematic pretension, Miller keeps us white-knuckled.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: The sex and nudity are fleeting, but the plight of the endangered children could be upsetting.



Miranda Stuart Rhyne: Angela

Charlotte Blythe: Ellie

Anna Thomson: Mae

John Ventimiglia: Andrew

Vincent Gallo: Preacher

A Rebecca Miller film, released by Tree Farm Pictures. Director Rebecca Miller. Producer Ron Kastner. Screenplay Rebecca Miller. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Editor Melody London. Costumes Todd Thomas. Music Michael Rohatyn. Production design Daniel Talpers. Art director Alexander Desmond Westerman. Set decorator Caroline Seckinger. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 478-6379.

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