As if tailored to an election year in which family values will surely be a major theme, Barbet Schroeder's "Before and After" unfortunately resembles a politician's stump speech on that subject: It's so afraid of violating basic pieties that it ends up saying nothing. The earnest, handsomely mounted meller is marred not only by thematic waffling but also by narrative awkwardness and some unexpected weakness in the acting department. While the names of stars Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson may make for a healthy launch, pic's prospects in the longer term look considerably less robust.

As if tailored to an election year in which family values will surely be a major theme, Barbet Schroeder’s “Before and After” unfortunately resembles a politician’s stump speech on that subject: It’s so afraid of violating basic pieties that it ends up saying nothing. The earnest, handsomely mounted meller is marred not only by thematic waffling but also by narrative awkwardness and some unexpected weakness in the acting department. While the names of stars Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson may make for a healthy launch, pic’s prospects in the longer term look considerably less robust.

Like too many of the TV movies it struggles unavailingly not to recall, pic seems to proceed from the belief that auds will cotton to a challenging premise only if its sharpest challenges are blunted. Here, the tough question of how solid, intelligent, well-meaning parents respond when their child commits a horrible crime is softened by a crucial qualifier: The child isn’t guilty.

This aspect of Ted Tally’s script, however true to Rosellen Brown’s source novel, immediately pushes the film away from the hard-hitting toward the sentimental, and it’s mirrored in countless other evasions and emotional miscues.

Dogged throughout by a shifting point of view, tale starts out with banal retrospective narration by the Ryan family’s young daughter, Judith (Julia Weldon), who explains that certain events can mark one’s life decisively, creating a terrible divide between before and after. As inane and pointless as this commentary may seem, it’s actually the first of the film’s cop-outs as it slyly signals that, like Judith, we’ll end up safely on the drama’s far shore.

As the opening scenes show, the Ryans are well-off residents of a picture-book slice of Massachusetts. Carolyn (Streep) is anestablished pediatrician, Ben (Neeson) a successful artist. Their well-ordered life is upended one winter’s eve when a local policeman brings the news that their son, Jacob (Edward Furlong), was the last person seen with a teenage girl who’s been murdered, and he’s now missing.

Ben reacts with an instant vehemence that the film never satisfactorily explains, then looks in his garage and finds blood-covered car implements, which he cleans before the police return with a search warrant. Though this evidence has been destroyed, Jacob remains the prime suspect, and his disappearance heightens community suspicion and animosity toward the Ryans.

After five agonizing weeks — which pass like five surprised seconds because, evidently, a section of the story didn’t make pic’s final cut — the boy is apprehended in Boston. Back at home, Jacob is withdrawn to the point of catatonia until the facade cracks and he explains his actions on the day of the murder, saying that he and the girl had a lovers’ spat that ended when she accidentally fell on a car jack and killed herself — a preposterous touch, but one in keeping with the rest of the story.

For the second time, Ben attempts to skirt the law by persuading Jacob to assert that he was away from the scene when the girl died, a claim the boy relates to the high-priced lawyer the Ryans have engaged, Panos Demeris (Alfred Molina). That Demeris, who’s supposed to be a world-class defender, doesn’t question Jacob’s doozy of a story is yet another strain on the tale’s credibility.

Other blows come when pic declines to show Ben’s and Carolyn’s separate appearances before the court, both of which are significant and prompt explosive reactions. Were these scenes shot and then cut because they didn’t work, or did the filmmakers think it would be clever to allow audiences to imagine their contents? Whatever the reasoning, the results are startlingly clumsy, creating dramatic gaps that never get filled.

Ultimately the story struggles to say something about the different responsibilities people have to their families and to the world beyond.

Yet no coherent message comes through, partly because the Ryans are so poorly drawn that none ends up a believable individual, but also because the script at every turn falls back on mushy affirmations of family rather than taking the risk of exploring conflicts that reveal the bitterest divisions between one family member and another, and between family and community.

Apart from Molina’s sharp performance as Demeris, none of the main actors comes off particularly well. While Streep displays her usual exacting intelligence, the generic mom role allows for little that’s distinctive or memorable.

Beyond looking dyspeptic and vaguely artsy, Neeson seems to lack the leading-man heft required in Ben; his work is wan and unfocused. And though Furlong has presence in spades, this is one too many films where he’s gotten by on that trademark woebegone stare and monotone delivery; it’s about time the boy started to act.

Schroeder nonetheless has turned out a visually pleasing film thanks to contributions such as Luciano Tovoli’s crisp lensing and Stuart Wurtzel’s vivid production design. Other tech credits are similarly high-caliber.

Before and After

(Drama -- Color)

Production

A Hollywood Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures of a Schroeder/Hoffman production. Produced by Barbet Schroeder, Susan Hoffman. Executive producers, Roger Birnbaum, Joe Roth. Co-producer, Chris Brigham. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Screenplay, Ted Tally, based on the novel by Rosellen Brown.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Luciano Tovoli; editor, Lee Percy; music, Howard Shore; production design, Stuart Wurtzel; art direction, Steve Saklad; set decoration, Gretchen Rau; costume design, Ann Roth; associate producer, Jonathan Glickman; assistant director, Henry Bronchtein; unit production manager , Chris Brigham; casting, Howard Feuer. Reviewed at Walt Disney screening room, New York, Feb. 21, 1996. Running time: 107 min.

With

Carolyn Ryan ... Meryl Streep Ben Ryan ... Liam Neeson Jacob Ryan ...Edward Furlong Judith Ryan ... Julia Weldon Panos Demeris ... Alfred Molina Fran Conklin ... Daniel Von Bargen Wendell Bye ... John Heard Terry Taverner ... Ann Magnuson Martha Taverner ... Alison Folland Marian Raynor, Prosecutor ... Kaiulani Lee
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