In the name of the father, almost all is forgiven

October 28, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Imaginary Crimes" is clearly not from an imaginary life. It's one of a small but definitely growing genre of story-memoirs that are almost always interesting because the lives they re-create are so specific and, usually, painful. (People with happy childhoods appear not to write books about their childhoods). Others of the ilk are "This Boy's Life" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and even "Corrina, Corrina."

The movie, derived from Sheila Ballantyne's novel, examines the life of a bright young woman bobbing in the wake of an erratic parent. The time is rainy Oregon in the early '50s, and nothing is much fun for Sonya Weiler (the solemn, luminous Fairuza Balk). Her mother, a beautiful, fair woman (played in flashback by Kelly Lynch), has died of a disease that may have a clinical name but feels more like the sheer weight of melancholy.

Sonya and her sister live with their father, Ray (Harvey Keitel).

Ray, Ray, Ray. Ray's almost there. Ray is so close. How close? This close! See that rainbow? The pot of gold at the end, Ray's got dibs! Ray's just about rich. He can smell it. And boy, is it gonna be fun.

Ray is a study in delusion, American-style. He is nothing but small-time greed, honed by a kind of vapid cunning that can never quite get where he wants to go. Superficially charming, seemingly intelligent, penny-ante scheming, he's one of those men who supports himself in mysterious ways, when he can at all, which isn't often.

Life is basically what he can barter or swindle. He survives on charm and pity, until he burns out the compassion and hope in his mark and has to move on. He's always playing out excruciating scenes in which Sonya is involved, or using her to run cover for some petty little scam he's got going.

In fact, that's one awkward truth that the movie truly gets: the incredible self-consciousness with which teen-agers view their parents. There's a terrifying scene in which he takes her to an appointment at the tony "Edgemont School" and crassly plays every slimy card in the pack to get her into the place. She sits in perfect grace and fury while he snivels, emotes, plays the air violin, lies and swindles to get her in. It's a disgusting performance, and the disgust radiates off her pert little face; but, of course, what we see that she doesn't is the love that's behind it. For Ray loves his two daughters, even if he is inefficient at expressing it and somewhat inconsistent at providing care and shelter. The film focuses more on sensitive Sonya, demonstrating, among other things, how brilliantly a good teacher can save a child's life. In her case, it's Mr. Webster (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is the first to believe in her writing and suggest to her that a life beyond the one she's got is possible.

The drama it illuminates is a subtle one. For all her contempt, Sonya is passionately connected to and dominated by her father. She desperately needs to escape; the movie recounts her slow, steady, nearly heroic efforts to find the necessary strength.

"Imaginary Crimes"

Starring Harvey Keitel and Fairuza Balk

Directed by Anthony Drazan

Released by Warner Bros./Morgan Creek

Rated PG-13

***

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