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Coming-of-age story about a Rose in the desert

THE year is 1950, the place is Las Vegas, and something momentous is about to happen: a series of atom bomb tests in the nearby Nevada desert. Some people are anxious about this -- uncertain what it means to their community and concerned for the safety of their homes and families.

Other folks, though, are downright thrilled. When has anything so exciting and romantic dropped into their lives? While their neighbors fret and worry, these happy citizens gossip about the project, welcome the ``science types'' who come to town, and congratulate themselves for having front-row seats at the show of the century.

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Such is the unusual background of ``Desert Bloom,'' one of the two or three best movies of the year so far. But it's not really a film about history or technology, despite the care that has been lavished on its details of time and place. It's something more intimate than that: a coming-of-age story focusing on a 13-year-old girl who's working awfully hard at growing up, but finds herself faced with more than her fair share of challenges.

Her name is Rose, and some of those challenges are normal ones for teen-agers -- physical and emotional changes that aren't always easy to navigate. But she's also dogged by problems that more fortunate youngsters don't have, including a rocky home life. Dad is a combat-scarred World War II veteran who hasn't made a smooth adjustment since leaving the military; he's also something of a bigot. Mom means well but suffers from a gambling problem and a general lack of willpower. And to top things off, Aunt Starr has just dropped in for a long visit, bringing husband and boyfriend problems with her.

With all this to contend with, how's a kid supposed to concentrate on the big spelling bee that's coming up? Rose does her best, and it's a measure of the film's good will that she fares better than anyone could have expected. Her story isn't always cheerful, and she has to steer through some desperate scenes of domestic confusion. But good storytellers know that youngsters prevail when given half a chance, and ``Desert Bloom'' is cinematic storytelling at its best, except during a few scenes when household strife veers into melodrama. Rose does a good job of growing up, at least partway, during the few weeks that the movie covers. She even comes out a little wiser -- and maybe happier -- for all the hurdles she's had to jump.

``Desert Bloom'' was written and directed by Eugene Corr with help from the Sundance Institute, which was founded by actor Robert Redford to foster independent cinema. Mr. Corr has some credentials from the independent and documentary fields, but this marks his first time as a full-fledged theatrical filmmaker, and I don't know when I've seen a more assured debut.

The screenplay, for one thing, is a fine example of narrative structure. It's built around the 42 days that Aunt Starr must live in Nevada in order to divorce her husband; it climaxes (perhaps a bit too coincidentally) on the eve of the first A-bomb blast; and it uses these formal devices to integrate the personal, social, and historical dimensions of the story.

Just as important is the sense of compassion that Corr brings to his characters -- treating them with respect and sympathy despite their flaws and rarely allowing the flashier or more dramatic figures (like Aunt Starr and Rose's father) to overshadow Rose's quiet but compelling presence.

The movie starts with her being fitted for a pair of spectacles that she hopes will give her an Ingrid Bergman sophistication, and it finishes with her eyes gazing at a world that's been profoundly changed by the long-awaited blast in the desert.

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On its deepest level, ``Desert Bloom'' is about this young woman learning to see -- and by following this process with such empathy, it helps us learn to see a bit more clearly, too.

Rose is played by newcomer Annabeth Gish, who's no relation to the Gish sisters of Hollywood fame, but who shows her talent superbly despite high-powered competition from Jon Voight as the father, JoBeth Williams as the mother, Ellen Barkin as the aunt, and Allen Garfield as a grown-up friend.

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