My Little Girl

May 5, 2020

mylittlegirlMary Stuart Masterson is one of the brightest of today’s young stars, as she has proved in gutsy supporting turns in At Close Range and Gardens of Stone and in an emotionally complex performance in the otherwise lightweight Some Kind of Wonderful. In My Little Girl, she finally gets to carry a movie as the central character.

My Little Girl isn’t quite worthy of her, and in fact it allows her little opportunity to showcase her talents. She plays Franny, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family; tennis, golf, and deciding whether to wear blue jeans or casual whites while yachting are the big issues of her life.

But this summer she’s volunteering at a shelter for girls, children who have been abandoned or whose parents are in jail. This may seem like a radical change, but Franny’s comfortable life has made her a bit uncomfortable. Besides, ever since she read The Grapes of Wrath, she’s been curious about the unseen world of the have-nots.

Soon she’s getting wrapped up in the problems of the girls, and volunteering full time. “But dear,” asks her mother back at the mansion, “what about your tennis lessons?” The mother and father, played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Peter Michael Goetz, are lampooned rather broadly.

Much of the film is taken up with Franny’s attempt to reach a rebellious girl (Traci Lin) who’s just itching to get back out on the streets and ruin her life. Franny’s other charges are two unresponsive sisters (Erika Alexander, Naeemah Wilmore) whose mother has committed a crime.

The film is scrupulously well­-meaning, and is clearly made from the heart by writer­ director Connie Kaiserman, whose first film this is. Overall, she’s gotten effective work from the actors, and there are some fine supporting roles for James Earl Jones, as the home’s put­ upon boss; the late Geraldine Page, as Franny’s grandmother; and Peter Gallagher, as Lin’s shady boyfriend, who takes Franny on a creepy joyride to an airport runway.

Kaiserman draws some of the characters in stereotypes, despite the competent acting. Just like the kids at the shelter, drawing mustaches and horns on pictures of their parents, so Kaiserman has drawn the parents here in caricatured terms. And when the movie lurches into melodrama near the end, with a prison break, it loses the well-tuned ease of the scenes at the shelter.

In other words, it’s not difficult to see why the movie sat on the shelf for a while before getting a small release. My Little Girl is kept honest by Masterson’s non-fussy performance, however, which prevents the action around her from tipping completely into cliche.

First published in the Herald, April 7, 1988

Not a notable review on my part, but I wanted to include this film for a few reasons. It was the only directing credit for Kaiserman, who is an associate producer on five Merchant Ivory films (and this one was produced by Ismail Merchant). That might explain the level of talent collected here, which includes the heavyweight cast, composer Richard Robbins, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. This was the first movie for Erika Alexander, as well as an ambitious striver named Jennifer Lopez. As for Masterson, she has had a long career, if not quite the one she seemed destined for around this time.

Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?

Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.