Director Jon Avnet’s attempt to recapture the flavor of his “Fried Green Tomatoes” comes out of the oven a bit squishy in “The War,” an earnest but over-cooked stew. The main ingredient is actually a big slice of “Stand by Me,” but there are sprinkles from various Vietnam War movies and even “Places in the Heart.” A strong marketing campaign may help early box office pickings, but long-term prospects suggest a modest harvest.
Despite Kevin Costner’s presence — in a role that’s nearly the opposite of his “A Perfect World” turn –“The War” belongs to its child cast, headed by Elijah Wood and newcomer Lexi Randall.
Still, the parallel between the Vietnam War and the children’s feud with a local clan of kids feels heavy-handed, and attempts to infuse the narrative with a sense of spirituality are so blatantly manipulative that they lack the wallop Avnet and screenwriter Kathy McWorter are clearly going for.
Set in Mississippi during the summer of 1970, the story focuses on a poor family whose patriarch (Costner) has returned from Vietnam bearing emotional scars that make it hard for him to hold a job.
His wife (Mare Winningham) struggles to keep the family afloat, while the kids set about the task of building a tree fort, all the while feuding with the despised Lipnickis — an almost feral family of dirt-poor bullies who take their lead from an alcoholic, abusive father.
Along the way, Costner’s wounded vet seeks to teach his son about what is or isn’t worth fighting for, illustrating the point with his own story — told in sporadic flashback episodes — about a particularly haunting wartime event.
Still, Avnet and McWorter lose the battle for credibility on the home front, especially in the over-the-top battle sequence for the tree fort. The filmmakers invest too much time demonizing the Lipnickis to allow for the sort of pat ending they’ve devised.
“The War” does yield memorable moments of a smaller variety, such as the scenes of Lidia (Randall) and her friends crooning their own versions of Supremes tunes, down to the garish choreography. There’s also a particularly strong scene in which the girls stand up to a bigoted schoolteacher.
Unfortunately, the movie wrestles with too many demons of its own to be completely effective, reaching too far and trying too hard to uplift the audience.
Wood remains a gifted child actor and also proves to be about the only cast member who doesn’t find himself stumbling over his Southern drawl.
Costner proves earnest and sincere in his latest good ol’ boy perf, lending marquee value to a movie whose focus is on the kids. But he seems somewhat miscast in the pivotal role, almost inadvertently projecting too much movie-star charm for the tortured soul he’s playing.
Winningham is used sparingly as the mother. The casting of the kids is impeccable, with LaToya Chisholm a standout as Lidia’s proud, outspoken friend Elvadine.
Tech credits deftly evoke the period, augmented by an omnipresent song score that begins with “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and concludes with Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train”– selections that really say it all, with about the same subtlety, about the rail “The War” is riding.