Lisa Cholodenko’s sober retelling of Dorothy Allison’s novel about a determined woman returning home to confront her traumatic past and pull her damaged family together, “Cavedweller” is a solid adaptation that never quite achieves its potential. Held back by a script that doesn’t entirely connect with the emotional heart of the material or convey the intimate observations of the book, the Showtime feature nonetheless is an involving, sensitively rendered drama that will be a well-received cable presentation and should secure festival dates on the strength of the director’s name.
Like Allison’s semi-autobiographical breakthrough “Bastard Out of Carolina,” 1998 novel “Cavedweller” again deals with a dysfunctional family scarred by violence. (A stage adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan performed last summer at the New York Theater Workshop similarly failed to harness all the dramatic weight or nuance originally on the page.)
The film reps a departure for Cholodenko from the city settings of “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” to small-town Georgia, showing a strong feel for the static nature of life in an insular Bible belt community. And while it serves merely to transport the principal character back to her past where the main drama unfolds, the mini road movie of her cross-country journey is perhaps just as much the core of the story, vaguely recalling “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Following the death in an accident of longterm partner Randall (Kevin Bacon), Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) packs up their angry 12-year-old daughter Cissy (Regan Arnold) and returns to Cayro, Georgia. She left 10 years earlier and joined Randall’s rock band, fleeing Clint (Aidan Quinn), an abusive redneck husband who tried to kill her, and leaving behind two young daughters, now in their teens.
Enduring the community’s harsh judgment, Delia encounters hostile resistance from the girls’ paternal grandmother (Jackie Burroughs) and from her daughters themselves, Amanda (Vanessa Zima) and Dede (April Mullen). Unable to provide a roof for the girls in any other way, Delia makes a deal with Clint, now dying of cancer, to move in and care for him through the final stages of his illness.
Dede’s rebellious nature and sexual curiosity give the girl insight into what she misguidedly thinks are the reasons for her mother’s abandonment, while her older sister Amanda is a preachy Baptist fundamentalist who prays for Delia’s soul but lacks forgiveness. Delia’s efforts to reconnect with her estranged daughters and regain their trust and love cause further strain in her difficult relationship with Cissy, resentful about being uprooted from Los Angeles to hick central.
The awkward configuration of tense strangers suddenly thrown together as family makes for interesting drama, and Delia’s courage in facing her guilt while refusing to spell out her full quota of reasons for leaving make her a strong, complicated central figure. But screenwriter Anne Meredith’s adaptation too often skims the surface of the characters’ struggles when it should dig deeper, sacrificing much of the novel’s emotional resonance in the distillation, particularly where Cissy is concerned.
Cast is fine all round, though Sedgwick, while sympathetic, relies too much on twitchy mannerisms to convey Delia’s inner conflict. Playing against his usual nice-guy type, Quinn strongly registers the rueful nature of a man bitterly accounting for his past, and Jill Scott has warm moments as Delia’s supportive best friend.
Crisply shot drama flows at a leisurely yet satisfying pace, graced by Wendy Melvoin’s score, which adds a dark undertone to country-flavored strings.