Tom Rice's "The Rising Place" is an ultra-touchy-feely civil-rights drama as imagined by theme-park organizers, with every character painted in broad strokes in a story that rings false at every turn. Pic, opening Nov. 8 in select cities with a nationwide rollout planned for January, might have already hit vidstore shelves by then.

Writer-producer-director Tom Rice’s “The Rising Place” is an ultra-touchy-feely race-relations, civil-rights drama as imagined by theme-park organizers, with every character painted in broad strokes in a story that eagerly tugs at every available heartstring — and rings false at every turn. Self-distributed pic, opening Nov. 8 in select cities with a nationwide rollout optimistically planned for January, might have already hit vidstore shelves by then.

Action begins in the present, where a Mississippi schoolteacher (Frances Fisher) is about to spend the Christmas holidays with her elderly mother (Frances Sternhagen) and aunt (Alice Drummond). When mom and Aunt Millie head off on a series of last-minute Christmas errands, Virginia (Fisher) stays at home, where she discovers in an upstairs closet a hatbox full of vintage letters and mementos from her aunt’s youth. As she reads, we see Millie’s life reenacted in flashback.

Like the Jessica Tandy character from “Fried Green Tomatoes,” young Millie (Laurel Holloman) is a free-spirit whose liberated lifestyle doesn’t quite mesh with the conservative mores of her small Mississippi town. Millie’s gotten pregnant out of wedlock by a soldier who’s off to WWII and hasn’t been heard from, and she spends most of her time hanging out with an effete draft-dodger (Mark Webber) and the black daughter (Elise Neal) of the cook at the local diner. This earns the ire of Millie’s good-ole’-boy father (Gary Cole) and causes most of the other townsfolk to turn up their noses at her.

But “The Rising Place” is less about Millie and her friends and their experiences growing up in the deep South of the 1940s than it is about how the three characters function in a single unit as a stereotypical battering ram against racial prejudice, macho bullying and just about every other form of social injustice that can be packed into pic’s 89-minute run time. And it’s about how Virginia learns so much she never knew about her aunt, and how knowing all that makes Virginia a better person.

Pic is an obvious labor of love for Rice and his fellow filmmakers,and you want to root for it, but it so frequently substitutes cheap sentimentality for real emotion — particularly when the subject matter at hand is so important, that it borders on trivializing the entire race-relations struggle in the South. Worse, when one character incriminates himself, “A Few Good Men”-style, after being goaded by Millie in court, the proceedings veer into the realm of self-parody.

Pic is well-produced and well-cast, and a few of the actors do escape their one-dimensional constraints Fisher does a lot with a little, while Drummond (so memorably spooked in the opening scene of “Ghostbusters”) is strong in her biggest part in years, despite being saddled with the unplayable task of dropping dead at the exact moment she finishes narrating her story.

The Rising Place

Production

A Flatland Pictures release and presentation. Produced by Tracy A. Ford, Marshall Peck, Tom Rice. Co-producer, Robert Johnston. Directed, written by Tom Rice, based on "The Rising Place" by David Armstrong.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Jim Dollarhide; editor, Mary Morrisey; music, Conrad Pope; original songs, Jennifer Holliday; music supervisor, Holliday; production designer, William J. Blanchard; set decorator, Joni Wheeler; costume designer, Mark Horton; sound (Dolby Digital), David M. Kelson; sound designer, Dessie Markovsky; assistant director, Thomas A. Keith. Reviewed on videocassette, L.A., November 5, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Emily Hodge - Laurel Holloman Wilma Watson - Elise Neal Will Bacon - Mark Webber Emmett Wilder - Liam Aiken Streete Wilder - Billy Campbell Avery Hodge - Gary Cole Aunt Millie - Alice Drummond Virginia Wilder - Frances Fisher Franklin Pou (age 12) - Mason Gamble Melvina Pou - Beth Grant Rebecca Hodge - Tess Harper Lessie Watson - S. Epatha Merkerson Eddie Scruggs - Scott Openshaw Ruth Wilder - Frances Sternhagen Sadie - Jennifer Holliday

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