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Also with: Michael Hyland, Robert Breuler, Mary Forcade, Benjamin Salisbury, William Francis McGuire.

Stage writer-actor John O’Keefe’s acclaimed monologue “Shimmer” inevitably loses magic in translation to conventionally dramatized screen form. But this American Playhouse production translates the source’s verbal lyricism well enough to court arthouse attention, despite familiarity of theme. Cable and vid sales will likely prove a better long-term bet.

Autobiographical narrative is set in 1956. Hero Spacy Callahan (Marcus Klemp) has been stuck for years at an Iowa juvenile home whose bucolic setting masks harsh treatment from employees and an even more brutal hierarchy among “inmates.” Eye contact with separately boarded girls is forbidden; that and any other transgression might mean an isolated stretch in lockup under Bible-reciting molester Mr. Kibby.

Spacy befriends a new arrival, the equally plucky and imaginative Gary (Elijah Shepard). When the lockup release of a dim-bulb imperils their health, the two boys plot and execute an escape. B&W memories define Spacy’s troubled childhood as sole offspring of a low-income couple; one harrowing flashback shows his drunken, violent father in action. But Spacy yearns to rejoin his now single mom (Mary Beth Hurt) at the apartment she’s promised has a bedroom “just for you.”

Centerpiece is the boys’ flight. Director John Hanson realizes this dusk-to-dawn journey by means that are familiar yet ultimately capture scenarist O’Keefe’s original lilt — via time-lapse skyscapes and handsome nighttime vistas, one gets a sense of the world as mysterious yet magical.

Performances by the young actors are a bit awkward at the outset but gain assurance as pic progresses. The briefly utilized Hurt and others do well as adult archetypes. While basic coming-of-age theme provokes deja vu, the uniquely bleak period setting works nicely, and the writer’s poetical leanings are adequately realized.

One might imagine a more deeply poetical/surreal “Shimmer” in the hands of Gus Van Sant, whose sympathy to misunderstood-baby-boy melodrama routinely assumes the spectral dimension required here. Yet Hanson manages poignancy well enough to draw a tear of empathy at O’Keefe’s transcendent, ambiguous conclusion.

Shimmer

(Drama-color/B&W)

  • Production: An American Playhouse Theatrical Films presentation in association with WMG and Kinowelt. Produced by Peter Deegan. Executive producers, Lindsay Law, Sandra Schulberg, Hans Brockman, Rainer Kolmel. Directed by John Hanson. Screenplay, John O'Keefe, based on his play. Line producer, Jeff Buchanan.
  • Crew: Camera (color/b&w), Stephen Lighthill; editor, Lisa Fruchtman; music, Todd Boekelheide; production design, David Lubin; sound mixer, Dan Gleich. Reviewed at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, Sept. 20, 1993. (In Festival of Festivals, Toronto; Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 95 min.
  • With: Spacy Callahan ... Marcus Klemp Gary Finch ... Elijah Shepard Mother ... Mary Beth Hurt Mr. Speck ... Tom Bower Teats Bower ... Clem Tucker Jr. Tony Kelmer ... Patrick LaBrecque Richard Halverson ... Jake Busey
  • Music By: