An on-the-nose though cathartically emotional melodrama giving Mira Sorvino her most substantial bigscreen role in years and featuring a head-turning performance by Barry Pepper.

A natural stewpot of drama — the battle between poor birth parents and wealthy adoptive parents to care for and raise a little boy — cooks and nearly boils over in “Like Dandelion Dust,” an on-the-nose though cathartically emotional melodrama giving Mira Sorvino her most substantial bigscreen role in years and featuring a head-turning performance by Barry Pepper. Fans of Karen Kingsbury’s novel, and auds at U.S. regional fests, could build word of mouth for a nifty theatrical tour before vid and tube home visits.

Stephen J. Rivele and Michael LaChance’s screenplay adaptation takes its time building the links between the two families at the heart of this tug of war — with little Joey (Maxwell Perry Cotton) in the middle — and at first it’s not clear that there’s a crisis. Early passages are largely concerned with Wendy Porter (Sorvino), her brutal abuse at the hands of factory-working husband Rip (Pepper, superbly cast), and his eventual release after a seven-year sentence in an Ohio prison.

Rip gets it into his head that, as part of starting over, he and Wendy should attempt to reclaim Joey, born after Rip was in prison and put up for adoption because Wendy had no means of support. Meanwhile, cutaways to wealthy Floridians Jack and Molly Campbell (Cole Hauser, Kate Levering) show them leading a happy and comfortable life with the child.

Using narrative denial of information to good effect, the pieces are put in place for the kind of primal dramatic conflict and its related social dimensions that bring to mind the theater of Arthur Miller. Legal details allow Wendy and Rip to claim visitation rights for Joey, and soon Jack and Molly are horrified to realize that the birth parents — if they can prove themselves suitable in the eyes of the court — can claim their right of guardianship.

Under Jon Gunn’s steady if uninspired direction (and somewhat surer editing), “Like Dandelion Dust” builds tension toward some truly wrenching scenes and sequences, including an extended scene marking Joey’s first trip to Ohio to see his birth parents, and a confrontation between Jack and Rip.

As the story shifts into the third act, and Jack and Molly’s desperation leads them into morally dubious territory, the film flirts with self-destruction on one hand and a potentially powerful ending on the other — either way, one wishes the characters didn’t speak in such an obviously direct manner. The family battle ends somewhere in between, leaving the film in a muddled gray zone, as opposed to tantalizing ambiguity.

Ensemble casting is generally sharp, though Pepper feels much more dug into the hole of a rough, blue-collar existence than Sorvino manages as she plays the victim. Pepper, somewhat Brando-like in his command and presence, proves he’s primed for a breakout performance in a major pic.

Hauser is nearly as impressive as the distraught Jack, a rare case in an American movie of a wealthy man engendering aud sympathy, and Levering is his equal in several powerful domestic scenes.

Gunn draws more out of his actors than his camera, which merely does a functional job. The most interesting production aspect is Shawn Carroll’s designs of Joey’s two socioeconomically dissimilar homes.

Like Dandelion Dust

Production

A Downes Brothers production in association with Lucky Crow Films. Produced by Kevin Downes, Bobby Downes, Kerry David. Executive producers, Shelene M. Bryan, Geoff Ludlow. Co-producer, Karen Kingsbury. Co-executive producers, Wayne McCall, Colleen McCall, Al Dickens, Katherine Dickens, Bill Herren, Kathleen Herren, Chris Morrow, Melanie Morrow. Directed, edited by Jon Gunn. Screenplay, Stephen J. Rivele, Michael LaChance, based on the novel by Karen Kingsbury.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen, DV), Reynaldo Villalobos; music, Nathan Larson; production designer, Shawn Carroll; costume designer, Stephen Chudej ; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeffree Bloomer ; sound designer, Mike Farnan; sound re-recording mixer, Farnan; stunt coordinator, Monte Rex Perlin; casting, Amanda Koblin, Amanda Harding, Beverly Holloway. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 9, 2009. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Mira Sorvino, Barry Pepper, Cole Hauser, Kate Levering, Maxwell Perry Cotton, L. Scott Caldwell, Abby Brammell, Kirk Woller. (English, French dialogue)

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