Life in a flawed, loving family

September 25, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

As filmgoers brace for yet another spate of movies dealing with families in varying degrees of dysfunction and pathology, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" offers the radical idea that flawed people can still be good parents.

What's more, it announces an exciting new talent in Leelee Sobieski, who carries this delicately modulated film with

composure, grace and startling honesty.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is based on Kaylie Jones' autobiographical novel, which chronicles her early life as the daughter of the novelist James Jones ("From Here to Eternity," "The Thin Red Line"). But you don't have to be an aficionado of Jones' work to appreciate this tender story of a young woman's sexual coming-of-age within the emotional scrum of a loving, if unconventional, family.

Sobieski plays Charlotte Anne (called Channe) Willis, who lives in Paris with her glamorous parents Bill and Marcella (Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey). We meet the Willises just as they are adopting Channe's brother Billy, and it's a testament to how fashionable complaint has become in autobiography that filmgoers will find themselves waiting for the inevitable disaster to strike. Surely Billy will come to grief; Bill or Marcellawill succumb to some drunken bout of violence against the children or each other; or some form of sexual abuse will transpire as Channe and Billy snuggle under furtive sheets.

Gratifyingly, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" never reverts to such type. Instead, it's simply a vivid, clear-eyed chronicle of Channe's life and how it changed with three formative events: Billy's arrival; her adolescent friendship with a flamboyant classmate, Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo); and her father's decision to move the family back to the United States.

Director James Ivory, best known for his 19th-century period films, shows just as much dexterity and eye for detail as he captures the late 1960s and early 1970s in Europe and America.

Bill Willis is a dominating presence throughout "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," but his character is never center stage, in part because of a typically recessive performance by Kristofferson, but mostly because this is Sobieski's movie.

Watching this gifted actress, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Helen Hunt, effortlessly portray a young woman on the brink of adulthood is a singular, hypnotic pleasure. Her face never leaves doubt that a child lingers in the woman she becomes.

'A Soldier's Daughter...'

Starring Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Leelee Sobieski

Directed by James Ivory

Released by October Films

Rated R (language)

Running time 124 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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