'A Home of Our Own' romanticizes poverty and homelessness

November 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"A Home of Our Own" is an Up With People! concert without the Muzak. Or the People. But it's got plenty of Up!

It's one of those spirit-of-the-little-guy numbers that makes poverty look like some Disney theme park land, exotic and colorful but not really dangerous. It's not Pirates of the Caribbean but Indigents of Idaho. The only things missing are the squalor, despair, malnutrition, self-loathing, self-destructiveness, depression and violence. It's poverty with the boring parts cut out.

Constructed as a memoir set in the early '60s by an oldest son Shayne (Edward Furlong), it's the story of the Lacey Clan, better known as "those darn Laceys." But basically it's "I Remember Mama." Kathy Bates plays brassy, brazen, irascible, profane and gritty bucket o' guts n' pluck Frances Lacey, a widow with a batch of kids (new ones keep seeming to swarm into the picture so I don't know how many) who ups and yanks her brood out of their shabby L.A. apartment and heads blindly into the wilderness of the East -- east, that is, from L.A. The movie seems to treat this as a quixotic madcap adventure, but there she is rolling through the snowy passes of the West in a car that's clearly unsafe; it struck me as the height of parental irresponsibility.

Frances has just been sexually harassed but, it being the '60s and all, and sexism being an institutionalized part of the workplace fabric, no mechanism exists for her to redress her grievances. In fact, for reacting violently when assaulted, she's fired. This is a tragedy but the movie isn't particularly interested in it. Rather it's a celebration of a woman who refuses to be a victim even if everybody around her wants to treat her as such. She has no time to feel sorry for herself.

In Idaho, she talks a truck farmer, Mr. Munimura (Soon-Tek Oh), into letting her occupy the half-built shack adjacent to his property, in exchange for chores and stoop labor. She enthusiastically enters community life, getting a job at the bowling alley as a waitress and sending her kids to school. But her guiding obsession is the structure of the title, and she spends most of the time cadging supplies or bartering with local contractors as she seeks ways to improve the dwelling.

At the crux of the picture seems to be a conflict of visions. Tony Bill, the director, is an unabashed sentimentalist; he can't see anything wrong with Mama. To him, she's like a figure off a Saturday Evening Post cover, mule-proud, resilient, enduring, an American archetype. Yet there's a darker side provided by the writer, Patrick Duncan.

Mama could be a little nuts. It's really not the family; she's capable of being utterly brutal to her children and her heroism has a little of the mad strain of Ahab's or Col. Nicholson's in "Bridge on the River Kwai." It's the house, the house, always the house, the actual physical structure that becomes the focal point of her existence. Duncan once wrote and directed a brilliant little Vietnam war movie -- "84 Charlie Mopic" -- about a Long Range Recon Patrol in deep trouble way behind the lines. Among other virtues, it contained an image of a sergeant made almost mad by his responsibility. That seems to be the central chord here, though Bill keeps muting it, twisting the materials toward conventionality.

I also think the film has a hidden political sensibility. It's like an extended lecture from a blowhard father to a son: "Oh, that was nothing, we had it much harder when I was a kid, but we all stuck together and people cared blah blah blah." True enough, but the times are so different today and the conditions that let Frances survive and eventually flourish have vanished so totally that as an example -- and as a subtle rebuke to groups who feel uniquely victimized by American society -- it's all but worthless.

"A Home of Our Own"

Starring Kathy Bates

Directed by Tony Bill

Released by Columbia

Rated PG-13

**

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