Thesp Timothy Hutton's directorial debut feature, "Digging to China," is a respectably crafted, sentimental nostalgia piece whose thin character motivations and development thwart any genuine emotional engagement. Story of friendship between a troubled young girl and a retarded man will ultimately move only those inclined to cry on cue, making it a better bet for telecast than theatrical play.

Thesp Timothy Hutton’s directorial debut feature, “Digging to China,” is a respectably crafted, sentimental nostalgia piece whose thin character motivations and development thwart any genuine emotional engagement. Story of friendship between a troubled young girl and a retarded man will ultimately move only those inclined to cry on cue, making it a better bet for telecast than theatrical play.

In mid-’60s rural New Hampshire, ailing (for unspecified reasons) divorcee Mrs. Frankovitz (Cathy Moriarty) has her hands full running a rustic motel while tending two daughters. The elder, Gwen (Mary Stuart Masterson), is a mildly “bad girl” who keeps a steady stream of beaus flowing through her bedroom door. “My sister shoulda been a nurse — she was always making some guy feel better,” grouses 10-year-old Harriet (Evan Rachel Wood).

Latter’s general dissatisfaction has her wishing for a better home; she fancies being “rescued” by a UFO or any other kind interloper. Happy distraction arrives when the childlike Ricky (Kevin Bacon) settles in for a stay, his mother’s (Marian Seldes) car having broken down. She was taking him to an institution for permanent care, as she’s terminally ill with cancer.

Once his initial shyness is conquered, Harriet finds in Ricky an ideal playmate for her minor mischief and make-believe. But once Mrs. F. dies in a car accident, Harriet is stuck having to mind the “sister” she has never gotten along with — and who (surprise!) reveals she’s really Harriet’s mother. Gwen views the friendship between pre-adolescent and retarded man as unnatural.

At first, Harriet tries to run away solo — her self-made getaway vehicle (a lawn chair lifted by helium balloons) only gets as far as the nearest tree. On a second effort, she flees with Ricky. They find an abandoned railroad car to stay in, but he soon gets ill and cries for Mama. Inevitably, the duo must part for good.

That farewell is a long time coming; screenplay by Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2″) spends so much time anticipating a big goodbye that it seems less touching than simply overdue. Script doesn’t work up much in the realm of character depth, either. Moriarty gets little to do before exiting pic, providing scant basis for Harriet’s pre-existing domestic unrest, while Seldes’ tired, anxious looks can’t fill out a similarly underwritten role. Masterson’s more expansive one travels a short, blunt road from initial irritation to misguided overprotectiveness. These relationships stay on the dysfunctional surface, sans back-stories or nuance.

Harriet and Ricky’s camaraderie scores a few sweet moments early on, but it’s compromised by thin writing as well. It doesn’t help, either, that the usually savvy Bacon delivers a stock half-wit impression — all hunched shoulders, head jerking, pants hitching and toothy smiles. (His stammering voice sounds a bit too much like Gilbert Gottfried.) Just-adequate newcomer Wood does not constitute a significant child-actor find.

Hutton does a pro but uninspired job with the mediocre material. He can’t salvage the more poorly conceived scenes (as when Gwen misinterprets a hug between leads as sexual abuse, resulting in a violent fight), and, despite good production design, the period flavor is too often evoked by leaning on predictable soundtrack of ’60s hits. Best element in tech package is the warm, woodsy look lent by veteran lenser Jorgen Persson (of numerous Bo Widerberg, Lasse Hallstrom and Bille August projects) in his first non-Scandi effort.

Digging to China

Production

A Moonstone Entertainment presentation, in association with Davis Entertainment Classics and the Ministry of Film, of an Alan Mruvka/Marilyn Vance/John Davis/J. Todd Harris production. Produced by Mruvka, Vance, Davis, Harris. Executive producers, Etchie Stroh, David Friendly, Stephen Nemeth. Directed by Timothy Hutton. Screenplay, Karen Jansz.

With

Ricky Schroth - Kevin Bacon Gwen Frankovitz - Mary Stuart Masterson Mrs. Frankovitz - Cathy Moriarty Harriet Frankovitz - Evan Rachel Wood Leah Schroth - Marian Seldes
Camera (color), Jorgen Persson; editors, Dana Congdon, Alain Jakubowicz; music, Cynthia Miller; score production/orchestration, Elmer Bernstein; music supervision, Michele Kuznetsky, Mary Ramos; production design, Robert De Vico; costumes, Mary Zophres; casting, Wendy Kurtzman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 23, 1998. Running time: 98 min.

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