MERMAIDS'' plays like a biographical remembrance, a very pleasant one. It is a largely sweet recall, but there are several instances in which director Richard Benjamin overdoes.
One is a running gag in which a 15-year-old girl, who has no reason to believe so, thinks she is pregnant. Another is a near tragedy that is given far too much time, a mistake in a film that is basically comic.
''Mermaids'' takes place in 1963. Cher is an itinerant free-spirited mother of two daughters whose fathers are nowhere around. She was married to the first. She hardly knew the second.
The family, close to poverty, lives in a small town in Massachusetts where Mrs. Flax (Cher) is keeping company with the owner of a local shoe store. The older daughter is embarrassed by her mother's behavior. She also fantasizes about the driver of the local school bus, a young man who seems rather preoccupied.
Nothing big happens in the film. These are just three people living out their rather ordinary lives, and much of what happens to them is amusing. Even the pregnancy joke is funny, but it, like the near tragedy, should stop before it does.
In the first instance, the mother repeatedly pleads with her daughter. She knows the girl is bothered by something. ''Tell me what it is,'' she says, over and over, and after a time, you want to grab the kid by the shoulders and shake an answer out of her. The sequence is exasperating more than funny, but these digressions are never enough to seriously damage the movie.
Cher is reported to have been unhappy with the finished product. That could be because Winona Ryder, as her older daughter, has more screen time than the star. Cher needn't worry. She does very well with the time she has. Cher has become something of a camp figure. She is, at times, almost bigger than her movies. In this case, she is not, but that's only because the others have equal or more time than she.
Christina Ricci is the younger daughter who practices holding her breath in the bathtub. She's a swimmer, and she wants to be the best.
Bob Hoskins is the owner of the shoe shop. He, too, does well with his screen time. No one is going to take anything away from him.
Nineteen sixty three was the year in which President Kennedy was assassinated, and the film brings it all back to us. If the movie is remembered for nothing else, it should be for this. The reaction of the townspeople is handled so well, so realistically, the spectator feels as though he is reliving the experience.
''Mermaids,'' in which the shoe shop owner wants Mrs. Flax to make more commitment than is her custom, features Michael Schoeffling as Joe, the bus driver Charlotte (Ryder) thinks she loves.
Charlotte also thinks of herself as Catholic, and she isn't. When her mother sees her daughter playing with Catholic holy figures, she reminds the girl that they are Jewish, but Charlotte doesn't hear and doesn't much care. She is what she chooses to be. Today, she is Catholic. Tomorrow, she will be Jewish again. This is a young lady who changes her religion and ethnic background any number of times. It is more fancy than flight.
Charlotte is, above all, imaginative, and ''Mermaids'' is, above all, enjoyable. The film opens here today.
*** A free-spirited woman, a wanderer with two daughters, settles for a time in a small town in Massachusetts.
CAST: Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, Michael Schoeffling, Christina Ricci, Jan Miner
DIRECTOR: Richard Benjamin
RATING: PG-13 (language, sex)
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes