A college dean faces a race-relations fracas in "Spinning Into Butter," a decent film translation of Rebecca Gilman's widely staged play.

A college dean faces a race-relations fracas in “Spinning Into Butter,” a decent film translation of Rebecca Gilman’s widely staged play. Troubled production commenced filming in October 2005, hit a publicly acknowledged “financial glitch” and is still dodging rumors of non-payment to some workers; despite the behind-the-scenes drama, smoothly handled on-screen result retains the play’s principal strengths as an involving, accessible if schematic vehicle for provoking discussion about myriad hot-button racial topics. Nonetheless, in style and content, Sarah Jessica Parker starrer is the kind of earnest, talky, modestly scaled social-issue pic that seems predestined for the smallscreen.

Sarah Daniels (Parker) is starting her second year as dean of students at Belmont College in beautiful northern Vermont, when an ugly incident suggests campus life might not be so idyllic after all. Sheets covered with racist epithets and a stick drawing of a lynched body have been found pinned to the dorm door of black student Simon Brick (Paul James).

Police are called, reporters start sniffing around and the overwhelmingly white administration panics. They call for a mandatory-attendance forum that consists mostly of Caucasian staff delivering p.c. homilies about unity and tolerance. At a second forum, youth frustration first turns on the mortified staff, then develops into a full-on brawl revealing just how little unity is felt between different student cliques.

Naturally, this is delightful fodder for heat-seeking TV and print media. As the controversy rages and angry rhetoric escalates, worsening threats continue to be made against mild-mannered Simon. In a public-relations panic, the university president (James Rebhorn) and fellow deans (Miranda Richardson and Beau Bridges) simply dump the problem of somehow cleaning up this mess into Sarah’s lap.

But Sarah, who previously worked at an inner-city college and is thus considered by default a liaison to “persons of color,” has her own issues to contend with. Her one ally is Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), not a welcome presence initially, since he’s the first reporter to show up. But their mutual rapport and tentative romantic vibe provide some relief — even as the pair’s own disparate racial backgrounds inevitably turn the campus crisis into something personal.

Onstage, Gilman’s snappy dialogue and brisk narratives let her issue-driven works transcend polemicism. In the more literal-minded film medium, though, these virtues can come off as too much telling, not enough showing.

First-time feature helmer Mark Brokaw and scribe Doug Atchison (who adapted with Gilman) open up the play effectively enough, but there are inevitable moments when dialogue and situations don’t quite lift off the page. Revelation of the racist vandal’s identity, more shocking in the play because the perp is never seen onstage, here comes off as predictable, as well as another talking point checked off the endless list of U.S. race-relation matters.

Deglammed via darkened hair and plainer makeup, Parker makes an appealing protagonist, sparking nicely in her scenes with the affable Williamson. Supporting perfs are well-judged, though Richardson and Bridges have limned similar bitchy/hypocritical characters all too many times before.

Tech and design contribs are conventional but pro.

quite lift off the page. Revelation of the racist vandal’s identity, more shocking in the play because the perp is never seen onstage, here comes off as predictable, as well as another talking point checked off the endless list of U.S. race-relation matters.

Deglammed via darkened hair and plainer makeup, Parker makes an appealing protagonist, sparking nicely in her scenes with the affable Williamson. Supporting perfs are well-judged, though Richardson and Bridges have limned similar bitchy/hypocritical characters all too many times before.

Tech and design contribs are conventional but pro.

Spinning Into Butter

Production

A Cinemavault release of a Whitsett Hill Films presentation of a Norman Twain/Lou Pitt production. Produced by Ryan Howe, Norman Twain, Lou Pitt. Executive producers, Mark Davis, Roger Howe, Tom Wilson, Nicolas Stiliadis. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Screenplay, Rebecca Gilman, Doug Atchison, based on the play by Gilman.

Crew

Camera (color), John Thomas; editor, Suzy Elmiger; music, Mark Davis; production designer, Michael Shaw; art director, Randall Richards; set decorator, Rich Devine; costume designer, Laura Bauer; sound (Dolby), Jeff Pullman; assistant director, Timothy Bird; casting, Daniel Swee. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 30, 2007. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Sarah Daniels - Sarah Jessica Parker Aaron Carmichael - Mykelti Williamson Burton Strauss - Beau Bridges Catherine Kenney - Miranda Richardson Winston Garvey - James Rebhorn Patrick Chibas - Victor Rasuk Simon Brick - Paul James
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