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`Miss Firecracker' Fizzles - Despite Its Potential. Beth Henley's script is promising but seems to encourage overacting. FILM: REVIEW

BETH HENLEY is a respected playwright: She's written several major productions, and her ``Crimes of the Heart'' won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, even though it was her first full-length play. Something unfortunate happens when Ms. Henley decides to do a movie, though. The film version of ``Crimes of the Heart'' won Oscar nominations for her and Sissy Spacek, but it didn't quite work as a comedy or a drama.

Ditto for ``True Stories,'' which she wrote with David Byrne of the Talking Heads rock group. Her other original screenplay, ``Nobody's Fool,'' with Rosanna Arquette, was a disaster - not funny, not convincing, not anything.

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Henley's new movie, ``Miss Firecracker,'' is based on the play she wrote right after ``Crimes of the Heart,'' and there are a lot of similarities between them. Again the setting is the Deep South; the most important characters are women; and the story might seem sad - even tragic - if there weren't so much goofiness in so many of the situations.

A less welcome similarity runs through the performances in the two movies. There's a quality in Henley's dialogue that seems to encourage overacting by just about everyone.

It happened to good actresses like Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, and Ms. Spacek in ``Crimes of the Heart,'' and in ``Miss Firecracker'' it happens once more.

Holly Hunter, who was so excellent in ``Broadcast News,'' overdoes her role here. So do Mary Steenburgen and Alfre Woodard, although to a lesser extent.

One woman in a bit part actually overacts with her teeth, which the makeup department has covered with some kind of yellow film. It's hard to appreciate the movie's virtues when each performance is scrambling so much for attention.

This is too bad, because the story has potential. The heroine (Ms. Hunter) is a young woman who used to have a bad reputation, but thinks she can gain respect by winning the local beauty-and-talent contest.

Ms. Steenburgen plays an older sister who did win it, years ago, and Ms. Woodard plays a friend who wants to help. Other characters include the heroine's crazy cousin - I mean really crazy, as played by Tim Robbins in the film's best performance - and a colorful assortment of friends and neighbors.

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The plot follows all the steps in preparing for the contest and going through it, and the bittersweet moments right after it's over.

Why does ``Miss Firecracker'' seem overcooked much of the time?

Maybe speaking Henley's brand of eccentric, even zany dialogue is just too stimulating for most performers, and they don't realize they're pushing their roles too hard - especially when the characters have flamboyant natures to begin with, as you can tell just from their names: Carnelle, Delmount, Popeye.

Whatever the cause, ``Miss Firecracker'' is a movie that tries too hard. You want to like it, but in the end it just tires you out.

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