Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 am

Narrator Martin Sheen's honeyed Southern drawl announces Shadrach as a genteel tale based on the memories of Paul Whitehurst (Scott Terra): As a 10-year-old in the summer of 1935, he hears the tragic echoes still reverberating through his native Virginia.

Paul, the only child of an affluent family, wants nothing more than to head to the ramshackle house of the Dabneys, where the boys -- all named Mole -- don't bathe and the girls are in various stages of pregnancy. That Paul is slumming occurs to no one, particularly not the sweetly benevolent Dabney matriarch, Trixie (Andie MacDowell), who oversees the household with an ever-present beer in her hand. Her husband, Vernon (Harvey Keitel), ekes out a living as a bootlegger.

While playing marbles in the cluttered Dabney backyard, Paul spots what appears to be an apparition: a very old black man sitting in the rusted-out husk of an abandoned car. He's Shadrach (John Franklin Sawyer), who says he's 99 years old. Shadrach has walked from Alabama so that when he dies -- his frailty suggests this is imminent -- he will be buried at the Dabney plantation, where he was born a slave.

The Dabneys, initially presented here as stereotypical white trash -- although Sheen's voice assures us that they're just the "victims of numerous misfortunes" -- were once wealthy tobacco growers. Vernon, who still refers to slaves as "uncles and mammies," is rankled when Trixie insists they help Shadrach, whom she calls "kin." They proceed to what remains of the Dabney ancestral property to fulfill Shadrach's dying wish, where Vernon butts heads with a sheriff who insists that burial on private property is now illegal.

Director Susanna Styron -- who co-wrote the script, with Bridget Terry, from a short story by her father, William Styron -- falls into an old narrative trap: The action isn't told from the point of view of the actual participants, but serves as a "life lesson" for an observer. This device distances the audience, particularly when Shadrach turns out to be less a story about race and slavery -- or even that great leveler, the Great Depression -- serving instead as Paul's first truthful encounter with mortality.

Although the dialogue is often stilted, Shadrach is full of truthful performances from a cast of mostly first-timers. South Carolina-born Andie MacDowell is marvelously at ease as this steel-spined earth mother, while a pot-bellied Harvey Keitel gives his least self-conscious performance since The Piano. Vernon, who frequently rails against "Franklin 'D for Disaster' Roosevelt," is Shadrach's unexpected guiding light: His racism and poverty don't altogether cloak his defiance, dignity or basic decency.

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