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Wrestling with Alligators

Reeling back to 1959, "Wrestling With Alligators" is a coming-of-age saga steeped in wry nostalgia. Filmmaker Laurie Weltz expresses extremely limited affection for the bygone era, other than for what it portends about the future, and this attitude elevates the modest tale. Still, the female bonding story is a bit too gentle to galvanize more than modest niche appeal theatrically. It should find a more receptive audience on TV and cable, both at home and internationally.

Reeling back to 1959, “Wrestling With Alligators” is a coming-of-age saga steeped in wry nostalgia. Filmmaker Laurie Weltz expresses extremely limited affection for the bygone era, other than for what it portends about the future, and this attitude elevates the modest tale. Still, the female bonding story is a bit too gentle to galvanize more than modest niche appeal theatrically. It should find a more receptive audience on TV and cable, both at home and internationally.

Set in a seaside New Jersey town, pic centers on teenager Maddy Hawkins (Aleksa Palladino) and the denizens of Lulu’s Look Out, a women-only rooming house run by a former silent-screen actress (Claire Bloom). As the film opens, Maddy’s best friend, Mary (Adrienne Shelly), is being feted with a wedding party prior to her departure for married life in Colorado. Maddy feels abandoned, and Mary’s gift of her “lucky dress” does little to soften the blow.

Maddy, who works at a local garage, is at an awkward age. The harsh Florida home life she escaped has toughened her, and she’s only just beginning to realize her femininity. Still, she’s blessed because of the nurturing environment of Lulu’s house.

Essentially, two key narrative threads evolve. Maddy has her first brush with the opposite sex when she meets Will (Sam Trammell), an itinerant carnival worker. And she’s drawn into the plight of fellow roomer Claire (Joely Richardson), a widowed French war bride who’s pregnant by good-natured garage owner Rick (Jay O. Sanders), whom she does not love.

Weltz, who co-wrote the script with Scott Kraft, directs the piece with the sort of conviction that suggests some personal connection to the material. That’s apparent in the pic’s attention to detail, particulary in its most vivid section, which concerns Claire’s trip to an abortionist, accompanied by Maddy.

“Wrestling With Alligators” needs more sequences of this nature and intensity. Too often the film ventures into territory whose familiarity no amount of subtlety or texture can overcome. The pic would also benefit from some well-appointed trims to pick up its pace.

Palladino, of “Manny & Lo,” gives a winning performance in a cast of seasoned vets. There’s not a false note on the talent side, and that’s certainly to Weltz’s credit. Though the script falters at times, the direction is adroit, and tech credits, especially the camerawork of Richard Dallett and Pam Shamshiri’s bright, pastel-palette production design, are first-rate.

Wrestling with Alligators

  • Production: A Portman Prods./Homegrown Pictures presentation. Produced by Marcia Kirkley. Executive producers, Mindy Affrime, Tim Buxton, Cat Villiers. Directed by Laurie Weltz. Screenplay, Weltz, Scott Kraft.
  • Crew: Camera (DuArt color), Richard Dallett; editor, Donna Stern; music, Andrew Hollander; production design, Pam Shamshiri; art direction, Tina Manfredi; set decoration, Nathalie Leslie-Cassergrain; costume design, Christopher Del Coro; sound (Dolby), Eric Klein; assistant director, Chip Signore; casting, Eve Battaglia. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 1998. Running time: 95 MIN.
  • With: Maddy Hawkins - Aleksa Palladino Claire - Joely Richardson Lulu Fraker - Claire Bloom Will - Sam Trammell Rick - Jay O. Sanders Mary - Adrienne Shelly Pete - Thomas Guiry Susan Wright - Nicole Bradin Doris - Sloane Shelton Ruby - Angelica Torn Delores Schuyler Grant Camera (DuArt color), Richard Dallett; editor, Donna Stern; music, Andrew Hollander; production design, Pam Shamshiri; art direction, Tina Manfredi; set decoration, Nathalie Leslie-Cassergrain; costume design, Christopher Del Coro; sound (Dolby), Eric Klein; assistant director, Chip Signore; casting, Eve Battaglia. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 1998. Running time: 95 MIN.
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