It seems especially apt that Shirley MacLaine, a high priestess of self-expression, should make her feature directing debut with a film about a child’s quest for individuality. With “Bruno,” MacLaine achieves a mixed success. Her name, promo skills and high-profile cast would seem to assure pic theatrical visibility, albeit likely in niche markets.
Working from a script by David Ciminello, MacLaine has fashioned a fable of magical realism about a cross-dressing 8-year-old genius, Bruno (Alex D. Linz of “Home Alone 3”). When the kids at his Catholic school bully him, his mom, Angela (Stacey Halprin), arrives to take him home and chastise the school’s flippant, cigarette-smoking Mother Superior (Kathy Bates).
Pining over her estranged husband, Dino (Gary Sinise), Angela, at 350 pounds, has enough issues of her own that Bruno’s penchant for dresses doesn’t strike her as odd. She’s also too busy pressing local gossip Dolores (Jennifer Tilly) for details on Dino’s new bimbo g.f. (Joey Lauren Adams) to notice.
Back in school, Bruno makes his first friend, a fellow outsider named Shaniqua (spunky Kiami Davael, who almost steals the picture). That the black Shaniqua fancies herself a young Annie Oakley provides fitting symmetry for Bruno; in one inspired bit, the two swap clothes in a cemetery. But when a concussion lands Bruno, still in the dress, at the hospital, his cross-dressing incites confusion and dismay.
With Angela distracted and Dino too mortified to get involved, Bruno’s curmudgeonly grandmother Helen (MacLaine) takes control. Does Bruno want to be a girl, Helen demands? Absolutely not, he assures her. He just likes to wear dresses, which, he reminds her, are holy vestments. In fact, he wants to be an etymologist.
Pic veers in a different direction from Alain Berliner’s superb, similarly themed “Ma vie en rose,” a whimsical fantasy in which a boy obstinately wants to be a girl. Burton Rencher’s production design, with the exception of a couple of fantasy sequences, is more rooted in reality, and feels more conventional: Instead of the neon pinks and surreal, flourescent palette of the 1997 film, “Bruno’s” look, like its tone, is more muted.
MacLaine has made a specialty, in recent years, out of playing tough older women whose outward stubbornness belies a deeper vulnerability, and her Helen could be a northern cousin to “Terms of Endearment’s” Aurora Greenway. The dismissive hand gestures and supercilious raised eyebrows feel overly familiar.
As a director, MacLaine does a sturdy, workmanlike job, though it isn’t hard to spot the mildly self-indulgent actor’s hand throughout: loving, lingering closeups often seem unnecessarily protracted. That same tendency to draw things out throws off the pacing and weighs things down, especially in an opening prologue that is slow setting up the action and Bruno’s dilemma.
But MacLaine also has a sharp eye for memorable moments. When Helen, for instance, finally agrees to accept her grandson on his terms, she suggests they toast the occasion with a swig of scotch. To her credit, she plays the moment less for comedy than for the sense of empathetic bonding, and subverts convention with the boy’s wholly unexpected, beautifully realized reaction shot.
Would that there were more such subtle and surprising moments throughout. Story ends rather predictably, and, regrettably, much of the cast is underused. Pros like Sinise and Bates are confined to playing one- or two-note characters. And Halprin, in her acting debut, brings a certain pathos to her role but hasn’t the requisite range to make the flamboyant Angela a multidimensional character.
Tech elements are first-rate, with lenser Jan Kiesser giving a backlit, otherworldly sheen to Catholic school sequences. Costumer Natasha Landau dreams up some truly amazing creations. Music by Chris Boardman plays up the sentiment and effectively heightens emotional moments.