Helmer Charles Matthau combines a sensitive screenplay adaptation of Truman Capote’s autobiographical novel “The Grass Harp” with a wonderful ensemble cast to create a jewel of a film. Fine Line will need some creative marketing here, but buoyed by good reviews, this should click with audiences hungry for a movie with substance.
Collin Fenwick, Capote’s alter ego, loses both his parents at an early age. The young Collin (Grayson Frick) is forced to move in with two of his father’s cousins, the Talbo sisters. In an inspired bit of casting, they’re played by Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek (who portrayed mother and daughter in “Carrie”).
Laurie is the sensitive Dolly, who makes do during the Depression peddling a home remedy created in her kitchen with the help of family cook Catherine (Nell Carter). Dolly’s sister Verena (Spacek), is a businesswoman who owns most of the stores in town, and treats everyone — including Collin and Dolly — as employees.
Episodic story focuses on Collin’s coming of age, with Edward Furlong taking over as the teenage character. Collin is a shy, hesitant type, but he loves Dolly and learns from her about the “grass harp,” the ability to hear the voices of departed ones as the wind rustles through the tall grasses.
Walter Matthau (the director’s father) approaches hamminess as the town’s eccentric retired judge but skillfully avoids crossing the line. In another terrific bit of casting, frequent Matthau collaborator Jack Lemmon appears as Morris Ritz, a Chicago sharpie who’s romancing Verena. The two men have only one brief scene together, but director Matthau is clever enough to realize that audiences would be disappointed if it wasn’t there at all.
Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis have fashioned a big-hearted script that manages to evoke Capote’s wistful reminiscences without becoming mawkish.
Director Matthau gets credit for keeping several balls in the air.
He manages to quickly sketch in supporting characters like the Reverend Buster (Charles Durning) and the sheriff (Joe Don Baker) without letting them seem like throwaways. They are integral to the texture of life in the town, as is Roddy McDowall as the gossipy town barber. Mary Steenburgen scores as the proprietor of a traveling revival meeting.
While no performance is off the mark, the film rises or falls on the Talbo sisters. Laurie and Spacek are riveting.
Tech credits are solid.
There’s an audience out there for a movie like this, and if Fine Line takes the time to build awareness, it has a winner.