No, Troy Donahue doesn’t make an appearance in “Here on Earth” — it just seems he will at any moment in this ultra-soft meller. That’s because the heart of the pubescent romancer seems deep in the Eisenhower era, so predictable are its dramatic points, so conservative is its overall filmmaking stance. Because the story’s pre-fab nature robs project of its intended value as an emotional tragedy, pic is sure to leave most auds unmoved and empty. Young teen girls will flock to pic in droves, dragging their boyfriends or other girlfriends. But pic seems locked in to that demo alone, utterly lacking the edge or spark to draw a larger youth crowd here or abroad.
Seemingly conceived as a deliberately retro counterbalance to the generally cynical-leaning youth pic parade, “Here on Earth” hints at a serious core, underlined by casting of exceptionally gifted lead thesps Leelee Sobieski, Chris Klein and Josh Hartnett. This is Sobieski’s first spin in the mainstream contempo arena after extraordinarily different turns in “Eyes Wide Shut,” the TV “Joan of Arc” and “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.”
Klein’s change here is even more striking, appearing as a rich young jerk after playing funny roles in “American Pie” and “Election.” New pic swirls around both of them, but they’re unable to break out of what amounts to a straitjacket of a script by Michael Seitzman.
Klein portrays Kelley, an uncaring preppy valedictorian of his private boys’ school who’d rather receive delivery on a new Mercedes from wheeler-dealer dad John (Stuart Wilson) than have him attend graduation. With new steed but sans motivation, Kelley and his pals tool off to the rural town near school, simply, it seems, to pester Jasper (Hartnett) and try to pick up on his nice g.f. Samantha (Sobieski), who waits tables with the rest of her family at diner owned by her mom (Annette O’Toole).
Dared by Kelley, Jasper races him down dirt roads, their chase ending with a crash at a gas station that starts a fire that burns down the diner next to it. The boys are dutifully sentenced to rebuild the diner as community service, under supervision of Jasper’s dad Malcolm (Michael Rooker).
Suspended from school and unable to live elsewhere, Kelley must live in Jasper’s home, but soon has his eye on Samantha. Incredibly, Samantha drops salt-of-the-earth Jasper and falls head-over-heels for Kelley, seemingly because she spies on him as he recites his valedictory address quoting from her fave poet, Robert Frost, the first inkling given of Kelley’s thoughtful, introspective side.
Pic thus seems to set up an Inge-with-training-wheels scenario, with huge love triangle eruptions. Incredibly, virtually no sparks fly, for Jasper meekly gives up with hardly a struggle. His weak, oft-repeated mantra to Samantha, “We’re real … we’ve always been real,” is something even Hartnett can’t make real, and even Sobieski can’t play off of, and it typifies the serious problems with unlikely, yet formulaic, storyline.
Pic slips into melodrama of the mustiest sort, as Samantha’s old knee problems stemming from her days as a track athlete emerge into cancer, sending Kelley — who lost his mother to suicide — reeling.
Medically, sudden health turn is unlikely as it is laid out here. Dramatically, the tragedy couldn’t possibly be flatter, exemplified by how unaffecting the grief shared by Samantha and her father (Bruce Greenwood) is.
Fault lies, not with thesps, who do their level best, but in the script and helmer Mark Piznarski’s utterly unimaginative direction. TV vet indicates no eye for the larger screen and directs his cast to keep things just as small.
Klein and Sobieski, while ready and willing to show off their strengths, come off as constrained even as their lovers’ story is meant to be about breaking free. Hartnett is shackled by terribly one-note role which could have been the catalyst for a much higher-charged pic.
Adult support, handled by fine thesps, is workmanlike at best. Pic is fair in all tech departments, though, given romantic tragedy implications, Michael D. O’Shea’s lensing could have more powerfully captured lush, green Minnesota locales.