Wednesday, September 23, 1998

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

Posted By on Wed, Sep 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Preconceived notions of a movie -- based on subject matter or filmmaker -- can all too easily create the wrong impression. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, based on the autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, daughter of novelist James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line), is the latest film from the Merchant-Ivory team best known for literary period pieces A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day.

Daddy Dearest as done by the masters of genteel repression? Hardly. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is a lovely, clear-eyed film about family bonds, coming into your own, learning to see beyond the veneer of society and touching the real substance of life.

Channe (Leelee Sobieski) is the beloved, precocious daughter of parents who seem larger than life. Her father, American novelist Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson), funnels his memories of World War II into best-selling fiction and maintains an exterior of gruff cowboy machismo. Her flamboyant, emotionally compulsive mother, Marcella (Barbara Hershey), thrives on the high life of the expatriate intelligentsia in 1960s and '70s Paris.

Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and co-writer/director James Ivory have structured the film as a triptych, each segment detailing Channe's encounters with the men who will shape her life: first, her adopted brother Benoît (Jesse Bradford), who changes his name to Billy and strives to be as American as possible; then, Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Costanzo), an opera-singing social outcast who sees life as a grand, command performance.

The third segment follows the Willises as they move back to America, a particularly difficult adjustment for Channe and Billy. Surprisingly, the important man here is their father, the family's soft-spoken anchor.

In a film full of extraordinary, naturalistic performances, Kris Kristofferson is particularly superb -- and the talk Bill has with Channe about her burgeoning sexual activity is a marvel of common sense and parental love.

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries disproves the current wisdom that every family is inherently -- and destructively -- dysfunctional, by showing a nonconformist family whose members are bound together not by suffocating obligation, but through their compassion and unassuming devotion.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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