Leelee Sobieski is a mouthful of a name (40 years ago studio moguls would have made her change it to something short and unassuming) but get used to it because the young actress behind it is going to be getting a lot of attention. She almost single-handedly carries A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, the new film from Merchant Ivory -- the directing/producing/writing team best known for exquisitely crafted period pieces such as A Room With a View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993).
A Soldier's Daughter is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, daughter of American novelist James Jones, a World War II veteran whose books, including From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, reflected his experiences in battle. The movie chronicles the lives of the Willis family who, like the Joneses, were American expatriates living in Paris during the 1960s and 1970s. Sobieski portrays the teenaged daughter Channe.
The film opens in the mid-Sixties when Channe is eight years old, on the day her parents adopt Benoit, a six-year-old French boy abandoned by his mother. Jealous of all the attention lavished on her new brother, Channe (a marvelous performance from child actress Luisa Conlon) seeks comfort in the arms of her Portuguese nanny Candida (Dominique Blanc).
The film does not feature much of a story line, consisting instead of a string of small incidents in the lives of the Willises. Channe and Benoit (who adopts the American name Billy) grow closer; both are considered outsiders at school, where teachers and fellow students pick on them. Both children share a deep bond with their father Bill (Kris Kristofferson), a successful writer battling a congenital heart condition. Their mother Marcella (Barbara Hershey) is fun-loving and emotional, famous for her all-night poker parties.
As Channe enters puberty she befriends another expatriate, an artistic, effeminate boy named Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo). They are inseparable for most of the year, until Channe's developing sexual maturity finds her longing for a romantic relationship with other boys.
By this time Bill has decided to move the family back to the United States, partly because of his failing health and partly because he doesn't want his children turning into "Euro-trash brats." Strangers in their homeland, Channe and Billy feel just as alienated here as in France. Billy (Jesse Bradford) turns sullen and uncommunicative, while Channe uses sex to gain acceptance. It backfires, of course, and she acquires a reputation for being easy. In an unusually candid conversation she seeks advice about sex and boys from her father.
A major weakness of A Soldier's Daughter is that it has no real plot; also, it takes far too long for the audience to realize that the movie is a coming-of-age drama about Channe. That is -- or should be -- the through line that connects all the incidents and provides a firm underpinning for the movie. Furthermore, director James Ivory fails to provide a sense of the expatriate community in Paris and the mentality that characterized those who chose to leave America and live elsewhere. It's an important omission because an ongoing concern for Channe and Billy is their constant sense of not belonging.
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Another problem is the uneven level of acting. Sobieski (Deep Impact, the upcoming Eyes Wide Shut) gives a flawless performance, capturing the awkwardness, self-consciousness, exhilaration, hope, and disappointment of adolescence. Resembling a rather plain, slightly gawky Helen Hunt, she registers incredible empathy with the merest flicker of her eyes. As her brother, Bradford (Hackers, King of the Hill) also turns in a sensitive performance.
The veteran actors do not fare as well. Kristofferson proves inconsistent. At his best he conveys both sides of a complicated man: the macho, hard-living male and the devoted, loving father. The scene in which he expresses his concern about Billy to Channe is extremely moving. Hershey never suggests the duality in her character; in fact, she never really establishes a personality, other than as a boozing party girl. She talks a lot about loving her children, but we never see much evidence of it.
While falling short in several important areas, A Soldier's Daughter is still worth seeing. It is far more involving and satisfying than Merchant Ivory's two most recent outings, Surviving Picasso (1996) and the very ill-conceived Jefferson in Paris (1995). Special mention should be made of Richard Robbins's lovely score for A Soldier's Daughter. A regular member of the filmmaking team, Robbins has composed the music for seventeen Merchant Ivory pictures.
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.
Directed by James Ivory. Written by James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Starring Leelee Sobieski, Kris Kristofferson, and Barbara Hershey.