Fine scripting and cohesive playing by a trio of female leads give quality clout to “A Gift From Heaven,” an affecting, nuanced chamber drama of conflicting passions set in the North Carolina boonies in the ’70s. Though unhurried pacing and lack of big names could limit B.O. stateside, pic reps a striking freshman entry by former actor Jack Lucarelli that, with the right marketing, could find a niche in Europe, pic’s source of funding.
Story, originally written as a play by former actor David Steen, is almost entirely set in a remote backwoods dwelling, which houses a middle-age single mother (Sharon Farrell), her simple son Charlie (Steen) from a union at age 12 with her evangelist uncle, and adopted daughter Messy (Gigi Rice). Mom is an overprotective Bible thumper who’s devoted to the taciturn Charlie and gives frequent tongue lashings to the slovenly Messy.
Arrival of pretty, naive Cousin Anna (Sarah Trigger), who’s come to stay awhile following the death of her parents, sets off a string of sexual and emotional firecrackers that have smoldered for years.
First half-hour leisurely but never boringly details the women’s characters as they fuss around the house, eat dinner and bond on various levels. Though all the players give Steen’s dialogue the full “y’all” treatment, and Farrell especially plays the mother in heightened mode, the self-contained setting and scripter’s ear for natural voice rhythms sustain interest in the characters even when nothing much is happening onscreen.
Tensions start rising to the surface on the first night, when the two younger women go to a local dance, Messy stays out most of the night, and mom’s passionate love for her son (whom she’s dubbed “a gift from heaven”) takes an unseemly physical turn in the barn.
Next day, Anna and Charlie, who’ve been secretly eyeing each other since she arrived, pair off for a river trip. As mom’s protective instincts start to run out of control, the ever-neglected Messy opts for a radical solution to the effects of Anna and Charlie’s inevitable departure.
There’s enough emotional scarring and tangled passion here to fuel a couple of Tennessee Williams plays, but to the filmer’s credit the dramatic reins are kept so tightly controlled that character rather than backwoods Greek tragedy is the keynote.
In overall flavor, pic evokes observant, female-led dramas like “Places in the Heart” rather than full-bodied Southern mellers and, though the setting is solidly American, there’s an almost European whiff to both pacing and direction. It’s the kind of movie that the late Georges Delerue might have scored.
Onscreen sexual activity is studiously avoided and it’s left vague whether anything actually happens. Only false move in the dramatics department is a late-on physical set-to between mom and Anna that comes over as jarringly melodramatic.
Though Farrell and Trigger (“P.C.U.”) neatly etch the story’s emotional extremes, pic’s standout performance is by Rice as the unloved, supposedly devil-may-care adopted daughter who’s terrified of emotional vacuums. In such strong company, scripter Steen’s own playing of the simple-headed Charlie is a rung or two lower in believability and technique.
Steve Yaconelli’s unforced lensing and Steve Mirkovich’s unshowy, fluid editing are major assists throughout. Score by French composer Jean-Noel Chaleat is pleasant.
Though set in North Carolina, the movie was totally shot in California, with no loss of credibility. A change of title could benefit the pic’s commercial potential.