This teenage girl coming-of-age story boasts some fine performances, but is weakened by an overly familiar plot. Lukewarm reviews and lack of audience hook for this Boston Film Festival opener will lead to rough sledding at the fall B.O.
Tale opens with Sonya Weiler (Fairuza Balk) looking back on her senior year of high school in 1962 Portland, Ore. Her mother (played by Kelly Lynch in flashback) has succumbed to cancer. Her father, Ray (Harvey Keitel), is a well-meaning ne’er-do-well whose get-rich-quick schemes leave a lot of angry people in their wake.
Keeping a promise to his wife, Ray enrolls Sonya at an exclusive girl’s school for her senior year, even though it’s questionable whether he will be able to pay for it. There she falls under the tutelage of a well-meaning English teacher (Vincent D’Onofrio) who encourages her writing as well as her ambitions to go to college.
Between the bill collectors and the trouble that Ray creates for himself and a young sister (Elisabeth Moss) with her own history of problems, Sonya has her hands full. Story concerns how she endures her travails and eventually emerges a stronger person. We’ve seen all this before in countless dramas, right down to the sympathetic teacher — who invariably teaches English rather than math or science.
Film’s key asset is the acting, particularly the perfs by Balk and Lynch. Balk is clearly up to the demands of the role, and continues to make the transition from child actress (“Return to Oz”) to young adult parts. Lynch is superb in her few scenes as the mother who has been dealt several bad hands by life.
Keitel is stuck with the thankless role of a man who begins as a well-intentioned lout and somehow manages to save himself from his worst mistake at story’s end, but is otherwise unchanged. The most remarkable achievement of his performance is his accent, scrubbed of every trace of New York and the big city. He successfully portrays a small-time, small-town hustler who, for all his tough talk, would be eaten alive on the real mean streets.
Good use is made of the Oregon locale, and John Campbell’s cinematography captures the damp of the seasons and grimness of the Weiler family’s series of homes. Graduation scene, though, is obviously shot in fall, with autumn trees incongruous during a springtime ritual.