When ties that bind become tangled

Siblings: `Riders,' part of the Maryland Film Festival, is about a broken family -- and how two sisters learned to cope.

May 05, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Alex Stone is made of anything but. She likes to think she's fierce and independent, that she can do it alone. But she can't: Inside, she's a morass of fears, insecurities and uncertainties.

In short, Alex (Bodine Alexander) is pretty much like any teen-ager. But then a new, disruptive force enters her life -- a new kind of danger, a real one, with consequences that could threaten not only her well-being, but that of her 10-year-old sister, Sarah (Sarah Stusek).

It's time for Alex to grow up. Fast.

Riders," playing the Maryland Film Festival at 10 tonight at the Charles, 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Heritage Cinemahouse, is the debut effort from writer-director (and longtime Easton resident) Doug Sadler. It's a perceptive, warm and confidently understated film that captures the unique relationship between siblings -- especially siblings of a broken marriage -- and realizes how difficult it can be for children forced without warning into adult situations.

"Although we're never let in on the reasons Alex's parents divorced, it's obvious it wasn't a clean split. No one has seen her dad for a couple years, and his former friends are not exactly welcome at the Stone house.

But Alex still has warm feelings for him; the passing years have embellished the good times and glossed over the bad. For Alex, he's a shining knight, the one who will rescue her from whatever danger threatens her.

One day, that danger appears, in the guise of her mom's latest boyfriend, trucker Ned Rogers (a glowering Don Harvey). Alex has always been mom's fiercest critic, and she's never gotten used to the idea of her dating ("I take a breath, and you start gagging," mom complains to her). "I think you are a waste," Alex tells Ned, and their relationship devolves from there.

Sadler makes some wise decisions when it comes to Rogers' character. Yes, this guy is menacing, and there's clearly trouble brewing. But he's never over-the-top evil; the script has him always pulling up just short of that.

Yes, he warns Alex not to mess with him, but only after considerable provocation on her part. Yes, he scowls a good bit, but that's no crime. And yes, he takes an untoward interest in Sarah, but we never see him do anything. Because we're never sure just how evil this guy is, we can't afford to let our attention to the story wander.

When Alex walks in on the two of them in the bathroom together (Sarah insists he was just counting her teeth), and when mom gives her new beau the benefit of the doubt, Alex realizes something has to be done. That night, she yanks Sarah out of bed, bundles up their belongings and sets out to find their father, confident he'll make everything right.

So they head for New Orleans, the last place anyone saw him. Of course, there will be adventures along the way, Sarah will act like the 10-year-old she is, and Alex with struggle mightily to act like the adult she isn't.

The film is at its best when Alex and Sarah are on screen together, displaying a relationship both heart-breaking and heart-warming in its honesty and strength. One minute, they're snapping at each other over such trivialities as who should sleep later. The next, they're the best of friends, going on a shopping trip or blowing bubbles into their glasses of milk.

It's only when Alex unwittingly betrays Sarah's trust that things turn ugly between them, and events start winding their way toward a conclusion I doubt you'll see coming.

"Riders" is not without its problems; Alex's mom should have been fleshed out a little more, and an encounter with two New Orleans party girls named Bitsy and Dora is the only time the film threatens to become a cliche.

But with its uniformly strong cast -- Alexander is a real find, and she and Stusek are marvelous together -- "Riders" is a film to be savored. This is one road movie where the journey is definitely worth taking.

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