It could be a filmmaking trend, or a shift in mood as the century draws to a close, or simply a coincidence. But a surprising number of new American pictures, including some of the most highly visible entries in the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival, steer away from the big-city interests that have long fascinated moviemakers.
Taking their place is a concern with ordinary people, the dynamics of suburban and small-town living, and the sorts of values such communities reflect.
This doesn't mean the movies are painting rose-colored portraits, though. Many are skeptical toward the notion that quieter, less-hurried lives put people automatically in tune with traditional virtues. These films explore "the subterranean things that go on in [people's] complex lives," to borrow a phrase spoken by actor Kevin Spacey in a Toronto discussion of "American Beauty," a sardonic dissection of suburban malaise that captures the downbeat atmosphere of several pictures unveiled here.
A vivid example is The Cider House Rules, an adaptation of John Irving's novel due in theaters later this year. Directed by Lasse Hallstrm, who made "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," it stars Tobey Maguire as Homer, a young man raised in a New England orphanage, where he comes of age during World War II.
The kindly physician who runs this place (Michael Caine) has given him a medical education including the techniques used in abortions, which Homer refuses to perform even though his mentor sees them as a sad but sometimes appropriate part of his practice. Leaving the orphanage to become an apple picker in the countryside, Homer gets involved in the difficult lives of his African-American boss and the boss's troubled daughter.
By taking race and abortion as two of its main subjects, "The Cider House Rules" shows a brave willingness to tackle controversial themes. The movie doesn't carry its ideas to their logical conclusions - it's ultimately a story about slumming, since the white hero only pays a temporary visit to the world of black poverty, then slips smoothly back to his "natural" place - but it reveals the hidden depths of seemingly commonplace lives, and encourages viewers to question simplistic views of rural communities.
Race plays a similarly central role in Snow Falling on Cedars, also based on a bestselling novel and scheduled for a December opening. Ethan Hawke plays a young journalist attending a 1950s murder trial in the Pacific Northwest, which is intertwined with the local fishing industry and - more disturbingly - the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the 1940s.
The movie follows generally conventional formulas, with its courtroom-drama structure and love-story subplot. Its frequent flashbacks and sometimes dreamlike cinematography give it a surprising degree of emotional detachment, however, as if the filmmakers didn't want to dilute their social and historical messages with too much Hollywood sentimentality. Directed by Scott Hicks, whose "Shine" was an Oscar-winning hit four years ago, it's flawed but thought-provoking.
A Map of the World explores small-town issues as harrowing as some newspaper headlines in recent years. Sigourney Weaver plays an elementary-school nurse whose life is badly shaken when a neighbor's child accidentally drowns in a pond on her family's dairy farm. Nobody blames her for this mishap, but its memory is revived when another child's mother falsely accuses her of sexually abusing the pupils under her care.
On one level, "A Map of the World" is a psychological study of the heroine who must summon up extraordinary courage to carry herself and her much-loved family through an ordeal of physical and mental suffering. On another level, it's a sociological study of the hysteria that sex-abuse charges can generate in a small community held together by deeply held but insufficiently examined notions of trust and responsibility.
Since this second level is what makes "A Map of the World" most valuable and distinctive, the movie would make a greater contribution to current dialogues if it put more weight on its topical material and less on its human-interest angles. It still manages to focus needed attention on a difficult set of issues, however.
If these movies lean toward the heavy side, there's also Mumford, opening today in US theaters, to lighten things up. It tells the humorous tale of a young psychotherapist who moves into a Midwestern village and sets to work helping his neighbors cope with their everyday problems - the neglected wife who buys everything in sight, the pharmacist with an overactive imagination, the computer wizard with no friends except the androids he's building in his basement.
Things get more complicated when he falls in love with a patient, incurs the suspicion of the town's other shrinks, and reveals a secret about his past, which proves to be a lot more colorful than his bland exterior indicates.
Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, whose credits range from "The Big Chill" to the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back," this understated comedy brings good-natured affection to its portrayal of small-town life - suggesting, among other things, that the best experts on human psychology are plain old humans, with or without fancy credentials.
Loren Dean is perfect as the therapist, who has the same name as the movie and the town, and Kasdan surrounds him with a first-rate cast including Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard, Ted Danson, Jason Lee, Martin Short, and Robert Stack.
Settings far from the city might catch hold in Hollywood if these nonurban movies do well at the box office. The weeks between now and Christmas may determine whether the trend will continue or fizzle in the new millennium.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society