BEFORE AND AFTER (1996) ***
The Ryan family lives near a small New England town. Carolyn is an MD, Ben a sculptor of massive wood and metal artifacts, son Jacob is a 16-year old with problems and not unusual clashes with Dad, younger sister Judith is problem-less and sensitive.
A young working-class girl, who, unbeknownst to the senior Ryans, was Jacob's girlfriend, is found dead. It looks like a clear case of murder. Suspicions fall on Jacob. His parents disbelieve, but just the same, Ben checks out the car Jacob was driving. Finding bloody evidence, Ben panics and foolishly destroys it.
That action starts a series of false moves by nearly everyone. Jacob skips town for six weeks, then is caught. Out on bail, he eventually comes out of his shell and relates to his family his version of the events. The Ryans hire a skilled lawyer, but even then feed him what information they consider helpful...
In its first part the film runs like a drama observed with rather documentary distancing. The total movie is also a study of parental pain -- and guilt -- combined with one of those judicial cases where the concealing of the truth by well-meaning adults only makes matters worse and entraps them mercilessly.
The contest between the law and naive individuals is uneven. It's like the opening shots of ice-fishing through holes made by special power drills. The fish don't stand a chance against those techniques.
In a change from formulaic movies, "B & A" plays down suspense, bathos, whodunit and mystery-story elements, thrills or feelgood revelations. As the movie distances itself from cliches it gets closer to real life. We are shown the town and its people in careful, small doses, which is good, as the film, by avoiding much local color, can concentrate on the Ryans.
The source novel was rather rhetorical compared to the sober, clinically observed film adaptation by an Oscar-winner ("The Silence of the Lambs"). Also, in the book the Ryans were the Jewish Reiser family, a fact that added racist reactions by the locals. We do get, however, some class prejudice ("you rich people") in the movie.
I cannot tell why the Reiser-to-Ryan change was made (prudence?) but I imagine that the addition of another level -- intolerance -- would have burdened the story with more screen time, detracted from its in-family drama and made of the film a heavier document.
The acting is excellent. For this, much credit goes to Barbet Schroeder who directs intelligently but not sentimentally. The Ryans mix but do not match. The parents go from a happy couple to one with differences and conflicting notions of how to deal with the situation.
Except for Michele Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep is the only other actress I know whose eyes, even without tears, can have a redness that means pain. Liam Neeson, mercurial and temperamental, is prone to instinctive (often wrong or violent) decisions, yet even so a new bond is forged between father and son.
Julia Weldon makes a fine debut as a young girl who sees her seniors with quiet perspicacity, and understands them. Alfred Molina, as the pragmatic Greek-American lawyer who calls people "kiddo" and calls the shots, has to fight on two fronts: the prosecution and the misguided parents who do not realize that morality, justice and the law are not synonymous. Molina has a vigorous presence just this side of flamboyance.
Some of the most striking scenes are with Edward Furlong who does much with minimalist acting. When visited by his parents in juvenile jail, he is surly, silent and, in his father's words, "catatonic." This translates to a child who is scared to death.
As thin and wan as a consumptive youth in a 19th century novel, Furlong later acquires a trace of improved health. His face has a marked feminine look, reinforced by a voice that, I hope, will some day lose its high-pitch nasality. The way he is now, Furlong could make a beautiful transvestite in some picture.
In the neglected "A Home of Our Own" scripted by Patrick Duncan (the writer of "Mr. Holland's Opus"), Furlong was impressive as the oldest of widow Kathy Bates's six children. In "Little Odessa" he was the son of Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell, and the young brother of Tim Roth. Look for him in future films.