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IN SHORT: Sweet with a capital "Awww..." [Rated [PG-13], 128 minutes]
It's a real fine line a writer/director walks when focusing the bright lights on the mentally ill, but this is what Garry Marshall has done in his new movie, the very sweet and touching The Other Sister. Marshall has walked this line before, spotlighting a prostitute in the successful Pretty Woman and failing miserably with postal workers and the homeless in last year's Dear God.
The Other Sister is Karla Tate (Juliette Lewis), a mildly retarded girl who was sent to a special school for children with "problems" as a child. Returning to her parents house as a young adult (age 24), Karla has found that only a little has changed. Her dad (Tom Skerritt, in a role that gives him little to do) is no longer an alcoholic wreck but her mother, Elizabeth (Diane Keaton), is as controlling and overprotective as ever. This puts Karla, who has been given a basic training in how to take care of herself in the position of not being able to complain -- if she does, it is evidence that she is not "better". Her father and sisters see the difference, but mom is determined to see the six year old child that she sent away, who needs to be watched over and protected at every step, and nothing but.
Mom's "blindness" extends to daughter Heather, as well. Middle child Caroline is about to marry and rather than having an all inclusive family party, Elizabeth ignores Heather's partner, Michelle. Marshall's screenplay (with Bob Brunner, from a story by Marshall, Brunner and Alexandra Rose & Blair Richwood) doesn't make a big thing about the woman's sexual preference, it's just there and it's no big deal. The sneak preview audience Cranky sat with reacted in surprise but, New Yorkers all, we were not shocked. In the end, Karla will mend all the wounds of this dysfunctioning family. But you knew she would.
Juliette Lewis' performance as Karla is remarkable. She gives Karla a very strong sense of what is wrong and what is right within her and adds layers of warmth and feeling to the girl. Flashbacks at the top of the story reveal the unpleasant life Karla had as a child. The adult we meet is remarkably self assured, even if her mental ability is slower than average. Little achievements are big steps and, while the movie feels like its running long at times, there are enough small moments of triumph balancing enough setbacks to keep everything on a remarkably even keel.
Karla wants everything any of us want. She wants a job. She wants her own apartment. She wants a boyfriend. Despite the smothering mom, Karla achieves most all of it. Attending a vocational school she befriends another "challenged" individual, a boy named Daniel (Giovanni Ribisi) who is on his own, with slight guidance from his apartment building's manager Ernie (Hector Elizondo). While Karla comes from a well-to-do family, Daniel does not and his problems add an edge which keeps this flick from becoming warm fuzzies all over pap.
The power of The Other Sister is that we laugh with the characters, and not at them. The spotlight on Karla and Daniel is totally sympathetic. Their actions are innocent. We get to smile along as Karla negotiates public transit, as the pair begin dating and move towards their first sexual encounter --- they read The Joy Of Sex, trying to figure out what "doing it" really entails. Their lives parallel their favorite movie rental, The Graduate, and that is joyfully mirrored at the climax of the movie.
It's all very gentle humor and quite enjoyable.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Other Sister, he would have paid...
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