DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
A MAP OF THE WORLD (director: Scott Elliott; screenwriters: from the novel of Jane Hamilton/Peter Hedges/Polly Platt; cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Craig McKay; cast: Sigourney Weaver (Alice Goodwin), Julianne Moore (Theresa Collins), David Strathairn (Howard Goodwin), Louise Fletcher (Nellie), Arliss Howard (Paul Reverdy), Ron Lea (Dan Collins), Chloe Sevigny (Carole Mackessy), Dara Perlmutter (Emma Goodwin), Kayla Perlmutter (Claire Doodwin), Marc Donato (Robbie Mackessy); Runtime: 125; First Look Pictures; 1999)

 
"For those who crave intelligent 'mom in trouble' dramas."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film played at the Williamstown Film Festival, where I saw it and got a chance to talk with Sigourney Weaver.

Sigourney Weaver visited a Racine, Wisconsin, county jail to prepare for her unglamorous prison part in A Map of the World, and she said it was the toughest preparation she had to do in research for any part she's played. This is her favorite role and is personally her favorite movie. She finds sympathy with the flawed character she plays called Alice Goodwin, who moves from a big Midwestern city to be an outsider in a small rural Wisconsin town. With her awkward, supportive, and stalwart husband Howard (Strathairn), they run an alternative-lifestyle dairy farm. Howard instigated this move Alice wasn't that crazy about, but she went along with it the best way she could. They have two precocious young girls, the older being Emma and the more docile one Claire (Dara & Kayla Perlmutter- real sisters).

Somehow you get the feeling the beleaguered mother has days where she is not all that keen about living in the sticks where she's a school nurse to the uncultured rural school kids, and at times she might question her marriage to someone she has trouble communicating with. When the bratty Emma, someone she really loves, has a temper tantrum for no apparent reason and breaks her cereal bowl on the floor, the 'be-true-to-thine-own-self' Alice knows she doesn't like her daughter at that moment and also doesn't have a clue on how to get her to behave.

It took 30 days to film, and it was mostly shot in Toronto with only the city scene shot in Chicago.

Sigourney mentioned that this is an unusual and uplifting film. This gritty dramatic film takes a conventional soap opera story about a nuclear family and forces the characters to look at themselves again to undergo changes they didn't expect in an unusual way. The uplifting part was harder to see and just might be up to the individual to find what is uplifting. According to Sigourney, it was uplifting because the family was still intact at the end and for the character she plays returning to the city is not such a bad thing--and her husband who misses the farm the most, is still pleased with the way things worked out for all of them. It was a difficult film to come up with easy answers, as it required some thought to sift through the many layers of the characters. 

"Map" is based on a novel by Jane Hamilton and adheres to the novel for the most part.

The plot thickens when the family's hard but mostly satisfying stay on the farm suddenly changes into a nightmare due to circumstances beyond Alice's control. They're best friends with their neighbors Dan and Teresa Collins (Ron Lea & Julianne Moore), and when Alice is baby-sitting for Teresa's two young daughters, Lizzy and Audrey, the troubled Alice loses track of the younger girl Lizzy, who quietly slips out of the living room and drowns in the Goodwin's pond.

The death of the toddler is not only devastating for Teresa, but Alice begins to feel guilty about the accident and is on the verge of a nervous break-down. It's at this vulnerable time that she gets blind sided by law officials, who question her about a nasty child, Robbie Mackessy (Donato), who is always treated in her office for ailments she determines are due to neglect--as she doesn't quite understand what the rather thick officers want from her and blurts out "I hurt everybody I come into contact with." Robbie's single mom, Carole (Chloe Sevigny), is too busy entertaining her many boyfriends to care for him properly, and deeply resents the nurse for her interference. After the accident the vengeful mother sees this as a time to get even with the nurse she resents as the town begins to take a dim view of Alice. She, as a result, brings charges of child abuse which results in Alice's arrest.

The film unexpectedly goes into a prison and courtroom drama, with the most riveting scenes reserved for how Alice handles the demeaning time she spends in prison; especially, when trying to handle herself when trying to deal with hostile black prisoners who get their knowledge of the world from watching Oprah. There's also the constant noise and lack of privacy to deal with. The most touching prison scenes were of Howard trying to communicate with her from behind the glass partition, this comes after he couldn't communicate with her before when there were no barriers at home.

Alice clearly becomes someone who is torturing herself more than any punishment the law can hand out. In the courtroom, her expensive attorney (Howard) stakes out a brilliant defense that is hampered by her need to say truthful things she doesn't have to say to the court.

Unfortunately there was one scene that was baked over too fine: that would be the jail scene with Alice eventually winning over the hardened cons. It seemed contrived and the film spent too much prison time, as it said everything it had to say about the dehumanizing effect jail has in its opening shot when she was booked and everything else seemed reduntant.

Also, the last scene felt flat. A free Alice is back in a Chicago apartment eating an orderly pasta meal with her family. It seemed too theatrical of a framing shot of the nuclear family to be convincing; it is framed with a slo-mo zoom edging in on the family eating while enveloped by a dark background with only the light from an overhead light piercing their faces, as each member of the family had a slightly different expression to their new situation. I find it hard to believe that was an uplifting scene as much as it was one that put an exclamation point on the situation, visually indicating that things are still tenuous for the family and even though they have gone over one terrible hurdle and are perhaps psychologically stronger because of it--they are still not out of the dark. But, then again, if you find that uplifting -- you'll get no argument from me.

The film is directed by Scott Elliott, making his film debut after being known for his Broadway work and as the artistic director of the New Group; the film is more ambiguous than pat, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Elliott also does a great job of drawing out an outstanding performance from Sigourney Weaver. But the film is somewhat taken aback by a few bad decisions, such as giving Julianne Moore such a small part. She was so compelling as Sigourney's best friend who misses her friendship while also grieving for her daughter. It was a part that should have been expanded and it weakened the film by instead padding it with stale prison and courtroom scenes that many films have done before. Nevertheless, this is still a high quality drama, especially recognizing Sigourney Weaver's tour de force performance of a complex woman who is a little off-kilter. That should be rewarding enough for those who crave intelligent 'mom in trouble' dramas.

I unhesitatingly recommend the film for the way it intelligently examines the family crisis--though it's not for everyone, as the casual viewer might not be interested in a serious film that can be disturbing--as a toddler is taken off a respirator.

The film's title comes from an imaginary map located in the heart, and how the family uses that map to guide them to where they should live together.

REVIEWED ON 10/4/2001     GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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