Memory is changeable, insists the narrator at the start of Eve's Bayou -- the haunting debut film from writer-director Kasi Lemmons -- before she plants the verbal equivalent of a land mine: "The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old."

But as startling, high-contrast, black-and-white images (a recurring device indicating dreams and visions) give way to soft, enticing colors, the family portrait that emerges seems idyllic.

The biggest problem that Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett) seems to have is getting enough attention from her parents -- Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), a respected physician, and his gracious, elegant wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield) -- during a formal yet rollicking party at their large, comfortable house.

Within the vibrant (and segregated) community of Eve's Bayou, La., the Batistes are seen to have it all: respect, money, a loving family life. They also have secrets, and when 10-year-old Eve begins to look under the placid surface, she creates ripples that ultimately alter their futures.

Even though it's the patriarchal 1950s, the story revolves around Eve and the strong women closest to her: Aunt Mozelle (a fierce Debbi Morgan), a "psychic counselor" and three-time widow, and her sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), a self-righteous adolescent trying to usurp their mother's authority.

Recently Soul Food told a family's story through the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, whose simplistic, feel-good proclamations of togetherness reduced a complicated set of problems into easily digestible pap. But Eve's Bayou mirrors Eve's journey, growing richer and deeper as she comes to terms with human fallibility and her own confused motivations.

Kasi Lemmons' beautiful and unsettling film shares a few qualities with Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991): a slow, contemplative pace with flashes of magical realism, and a strong personal and cultural identification with a distinctive Southern locale.

The namesake of Eve's Bayou isn't the biblical figure but a slave, the founding mother of the town and the Batiste family. With her interconnected Eves, Lemmons shows how the past and present can co-exist on the same terrain.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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