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The Autumn Heart

As literal and schmaltzy as a conventional telepic, Steven Maler's "The Autumn Heart" is an old-fashioned family meller about a dying mother and her three grown daughters.

Ann - Tyne Daly Deb - Ally Sheedy Lee - Jack Davidson Daniel - Davidlee Willson Diane - Marla Sucharetza Donna - Marceline Hugo

As literal and schmaltzy as a conventional telepic, Steven Maler’s “The Autumn Heart” is an old-fashioned family meller about a dying mother and her three grown daughters. The four-hankie picture has a hackneyed narrative, but might please undemanding audiences; big in heart but small in vision, and decently acted by Tyne Daly, Ally Sheedy and others, the pic can safely play on the small screen without any damage to its integrity.

Biographical pictures should not be confused with personal or visionary filmmaking, as “The Autumn Heart” clearly demonstrates. The movie, scripted by Davidlee Willson, who co-stars, is a shamelessly manipulative and broad melodrama in which every idea and emotion is spelled out in the most unsubtle manner.

(The film, in competition at the Sundance Festival, is dedicated by Willson to the parents of all the filmmakers attending Sundance this year.)

The Thomas household is depicted as a casualty of 1960s and ’70s sexual mores. Voiceover narration establishes that in 1970, Ann (Daly) and Lee (Jack Davidson) Thomas, after having three daughters, had a fourth child, a boy. Six years later they divorced, and the father left with the son. For 16 years there was no communication between the split families.

When Ann, a school-bus driver in Boston, suffers a heart attack, she makes one special request: that her daughters find their long-lost brother before she dies.

Following the tradition of dramas about eccentric sisters, from Chekhov’s classic to Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” to Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” the daughters represent vastly different personalities and lifestyles. What they have in common is streetwise smarts and a rough, often profane way of speaking — qualities that give the film a more contempo veneer.

The trio, headed by Deb (Sheedy), leave the security of their blue-collar neighborhood to fulfill their mother’s dream. What they discover on the other side of Boston’s Charles River is a diametrically opposed milieu. Their father is a wealthy man and their brother, Daniel (scripter Willson), attends Harvard and is engaged to a rich, snobbish girl.

The helmer stages the numerous confrontations in an obvious theatrical manner, milking every sentiment. Since the plot is predictable, the pic’s main reward is its solid, appealing ensemble, particularly Sheedy, who overacts but at least brings an edge to the schmaltzy proceedings.

Tech credits are adequate, but Sheldon Mirowitz’s swollen music provides the kind of emotion not needed here.

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The Autumn Heart

Production: A Film Cellar production. Produced by Jerri Sher, Kelley A. McMahon. Executive producers, Marc Chabot, Lisa Marie Schiller. Co-producer, Tod Scott Brody. Directed by Steven Maler. Screenplay, Davidlee Willson.

With: Ann - Tyne Daly Deb - Ally Sheedy Lee - Jack Davidson Daniel - Davidlee Willson Diane - Marla Sucharetza Donna - Marceline HugoCamera (color), John Leuba; editor, Joel Hirsch; music, Sheldon Mirowitz; production designer, Susan Zeeman Rogers; casting, Susan Willett. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 1999. Running time: 110 MIN.

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