As sensitively written, fluidly directed and expertly acted as it is, and as elemental as its dramatic conflicts may be, "One True Thing" has trouble breaking free of its limitations as a small-scale, modestly aimed family drama.

As sensitively written, fluidly directed and expertly acted as it is, and as elemental as its dramatic conflicts may be, “One True Thing” has trouble breaking free of its limitations as a small-scale, modestly aimed family drama. Nicely judged artistically and pitched to reveal many small truths about parent-child relationships, pic is held in sharp focus by Renee Zellweger’s excellent central performance and reps an unexpected and admirable change of pace for director Carl Franklin. This is the sort of domestic material that has been done most often for television in recent years, and its muted nature presents an imposing challenge for Universal to move pic beyond a modest, femme-dominated theatrical audience.

The universe portrayed in former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen’s 1995 novel, centered on an intense young journalist forced to return to her childhood home to care for her cancer-stricken mother, is about as far afield from the criminal cinematic world of Franklin’s “One False Move” and “Devil in a Blue Dress” as one could imagine. Aside from its intrinsic merits, then, “One True Thing” stands as an effective riposte to the narrow-minded industry tendency to pigeon-hole filmmakers, as well as a successful effort by Franklin to flex an entirely different set of creative muscles.

Directed with a restraint that is unfortunately undercut by a conventionally maudlin score, pic is set, for no apparent reason, in 1987-88. Not long out of Harvard, Ellen Gulden (Zellweger) is trying to make a name for herself with a major investigative piece for New York magazine when she is informed by her father, George (William Hurt), that her mother, Kate (Meryl Streep), is about to undergo cancer surgery and that Ellen is needed to stay at home to care for her.

Ellen clearly has no choice but to comply, but she doesn’t initially see the point; surely a hired nurse would do as well. For his part, Dad, a respected literary critic and professor, is too swamped running his department at the local university to be at home during the day, and Ellen’s younger brother, Brian (Tom Everett Scott), is supposed to be at school. Ellen doesn’t feel too badly about taking a recess from her difficult relationship with boyfriend Jordan (Nicky Katt), but insists that she will continue her magazine writing from home.

The main problem, in fact, is that Ellen and her mother have never gotten along. Ellen, a determined career woman, has increasingly come to view her mom’s world as an unbearably boring, circumscribed one defined by dreary housekeeping duties and silly relationships with endlessly chattering old biddies. By contrast, Ellen has always idealized her father, an assured intellectual who encouraged her interest in the written word and flatters her upon her return home by inviting her to write the introduction to his new volume of collected essays.

So strongly does Karen Croner’s screenplay adopt Ellen’s p.o.v. that the viewer comes to dread as much as Ellen does the moments when she and her mother are stuck alone and forced to talk. Reinforcing Ellen’s dim view of her mother are any number of incidents: At George’s birthday party, the 50ish Kate dresses up like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”; Kate tends to laugh at and make light of almost everything, a stark contrast to Ellen’s tendency to take things very seriously indeed; and Kate forces Ellen to participate in her ladies’ club activities, which tend to center on long lunches, holiday decorations and Middle American civic events. To her horror, Ellen finds herself being sucked into her mother’s world, and she wants her own life back.

But as Kate’s condition worsens and the prospect crystallizes that this will likely be the last Thanksgiving and Christmas that the family will be together, Ellen begins to recognize the emotional reasons for her presence at home. Hints that George is fooling around with students and, indeed, may have been doing so for years, enrage Ellen toward both her parents — Dad for doing it, and Mom for putting up with it.

The daughter’s confrontations with both of them over this issue rep the film’s dramatic highlights. When Ellen blows up at her father in a diner, George flees from the scene; Kate, on the other hand, welcomes the occasion to stop putting a pretty face on things. Red-eyed and with a haunted look, Streep excels in this, her big scene, in which Kate breaks through with an honesty and directness that her daughter has never seen from her before.

Although all-too-ironically draped with Christmas ornamentation, climactic scenes of Kate’s final, pain-wracked deterioration are kept in admirable check. A framing story, in which a DA gently questions Ellen about the circumstances of her mother’s death, supplies not so much suspense over its cause as the opportunity for Ellen to voice her views about a woman she took for granted for nearly her entire life.

Just as it is for Ellen, it is easy at first for the viewer to resist taking a great personal interest in the Guldens and their unremarkable home life. The community is relatively bland, their problems not unusual. But family life, with its secrets, tensions and unbreakable bonds, tends to exert its pull when exposed in detail, and so it is here. While some audiences will find the action unexciting and too domesticated, others will surely be deeply moved by the generational conflicts and connections. In what it does, the picture is certainly effective.

Projecting gravity and impatience that she hasn’t shown before, Zellweger is outstanding as the smart young woman who resents the interruption to her life’s momentum but ends up growing in ways she never would have expected. Streep is almost frighteningly believable as a woman who seems to have chosen to live with blinders on, only to level about the most central issues at the end of her life. Hurt is also entirely credible as the distinguished academic whose comfortable life of stealth and denial is finally disrupted.

Franklin stages the many tightly contained interior scenes with impressive dexterity; pic could have been repetitive and visually dull, but the prism provided by Ellen’s viewpoint and Franklin’s clear bead on the dramatic locus keeps things lively and in proper balance. Declan Quinn’s lensing has a lovely, limpid quality, and New Jersey locations effectively suggest a generic Eastern seaboard college town setting.

One True Thing

Production

A Universal release of a Monarch Pictures/Ufland production. Produced by Harry Ufland, Jesse Beaton. Executive producers, William W. Wilson III, Leslie Morgan. Directed by Carl Franklin. Screenplay, Karen Croner, based on the novel by Anna Quindlen. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, Aug. 24, 1998.

With

Kate Gulden - Meryl Streep Ellen Gulden - Renee Zellweger George Gulden - William Hurt Brian Gulden - Tom Everett Scott Jules - Lauren Graham Jordan Belzer - Nicky Katt District Attorney - James Eckhouse Mr. Tweedy - Patrick Breen Oliver Most - Gerrit Graham
Camera (Deluxe color), Declan Quinn; editor, Carole Kravetz; music, Cliff Eidelman; production designer, Paul Peters; art director, Jefferson Sage; set decorators, Leslie A. Pope, Elaine O'Donnell; costume designer, Donna Zakowska; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby digital), Allan Byer; assistant directors, Sam Hoffman, Jono Oliver, Dale Pierce Nielsen; second unit director, William W. Wilson III; second unit camera, Andrew Casey, Chris Norr, Gabor Kover; casting, Rick Pagano. (In Montreal Film Festival -- noncompet-ing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.

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