Keeping up with the Joneses

A writer's daughter explores the textures of an original family.

This latest Merchant Ivory production sets out to prove that happy families are not all alike, whatever Tolstoy may say.

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

starring Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey

now playing at Seven Gables

Based loosely on the autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, daughter of novelist James Jones, the film is wildly successful in its portrayal of the distinctive textures of family life. In a departure from the standard Merchant Ivory fare, you will find here no petticoats, no ecstatic Italian moments, no Helena Bonham Carter with borrowed hair piled atop her bobbling head. Instead, we follow the fortunes of Charlotte Anne (nicknamed "Channe"), whose family is living in Paris at the end of '60s in a milieu that's part bohemian demimonde, part military expat.

The film is divided into three distinct parts, each named after a male figure in Channe's life. The first, "Billy," tells of her family's adoption of the little French boy. The section displays a rare sensitivity in its understanding of the geography of childhood: The parental bed looms huge; a treehouse is a refuge and a prison; pianos are for playing under. Channe's parents, played with wit and without sentiment by Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey, are revealed to be glamorous gods to the children, however flawed they appear to us. It's the perfect tone to strike, both knowing and unknowing.

We jump ahead to "Francis," with the talented Leelee Sobieski taking over the role of Channe as the character moves into pubescence. Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo) is her new best friend, an effeminate Jon Cryer look-alike who swoops around in a cape, has bought himself his own washing machine, wears brocade suits, and endures his incense-burning mother (Jane Birkin in a welcome cameo) who assures him he's an aristocrat "on the inside," but can't pay his school tuition. Ivory cleverly switches mood here, romancing us with off-kilter bits of surrealism, giggly sleepovers, and ravishing Parisian street scenes while making palpable Channe's thrall to her burgeoning life outside the family.

The third section, "Daddy," is the most conventional and least effective. Channe and her family have moved back to the states. The film's surface becomes flat and gray, reflecting Channe's and Billy's difficulties in negotiating American high school life and re-creating the look of a '70s family drama. There are some fine moments here: Channe's father is dying, and we watch the daughter spin out into the world of parties and boys and make-out sessions only to be pulled back into the family fold by her terror of her father's death. It's a fine portrayal of adolescence's twin urges to be going and staying. Billy, meanwhile, becomes stranger and more isolated, finding in the TV set a neutral place that's neither France nor America.

But the film doesn't need the final act's touches of melodrama, or its length: We've been following a subtle dance for two hours about the way families really work and the words people really use to make each other laugh. When the inevitable domestic tragedy comes, the words become the typical words of any family; the gestures, typical gestures. The film can do, and has done, better than that.

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