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‘Alan & Naomi’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 31, 1992


Sterling Vanwagenen
Lukas Haas;
Vanessa Zaoui;
Michael Gross;
Amy Aquino;
Kevin Connolly;
Zohra Lampert
Parental guidance suggested

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"Alan & Naomi" is a sweet souvenir, a slightly faded, crumpled photograph of the way we were and might be again -- if only we cherished the message of this compelling little film. Set in Brooklyn in 1944, it is an exquisitely simple story, more felt than told, about a gawky adolescent who matures, with his parents' help, into a socially concerned young adult.

Lukas Haas, whose last film was "Rambling Rose," plays 14-year-old Alan Silverman with convincing discombobulation. His legs are too long and his voice is too squeaky. Nothing seems to fit him, not even his personality. The war, which preoccupies his father, Sol (Michael Gross), ranks way below stickball among Alan's concerns. Then one evening over marble cake and milk, he learns that his formidable mother (Amy Aquino) has volunteered him as a companion for a catatonic Jewish refugee who recently moved upstairs.

Alan storms out aghast, but is persuaded by the more diplomatic Sol to at least give it a try. "Why me?" he demands. "Because you're one of the lucky ones," explains his parent. Reluctantly, he agrees to give up stickball for an afternoon to visit the "crazy girl," fearing all the while that he'll be found out by his girl-detesting best friend Shaun Kelly (Kevin Connolly). Nothing could have prepared him for the profound suffering of lovely, lonely Naomi Kirschenbaum.

Vanessa Zaoui, a captivating young Parisian actress, masters the difficult role of Naomi, the daughter of a French Resistance fighter, who hasn't spoken since she saw her father beaten to death by the Nazis. She seems as unseeing as the tattered doll in her lap while she relentlessly shreds newspaper. On Alan's tentative first visit, she responds not at all to the desperate boy's limited conversation: "Bonjour, uuh, poodle, cancan, Paree, uuh, Eiffel Tower." But when he moves near her, she becomes hysterical.

Angry and scared, Alan wants to give up, but his parents persuade him to keep trying. Besides, whether he admits it to himself or not, Alan is involved in the mystery of Naomi. Still he keeps his rendezvous with the girl a secret from his freckled Irish friend Shaun, who is hurt when Alan refuses to confide in him until it nearly wrecks their relationship.

The friendship between the two boys is an admirable one, but it tends to interrupt the narrative momentum of Jordan Horowitz's screenplay (adapted from Myron Levoy's novel). Still, it seems as essential an ingredient in coming of age as the neighborhood bully, whose antisemitic gibes provoke a schoolyard fight between the three kids. Unfortunately, the roughhousing brings back awful memories for the recovering Naomi. "Alan & Naomi" is not a happy story, but a hopeful one. A directorial debut for producer Sterling VanWagenen, it bears the distinct imprint of the man who helped develop such independent films as "El Norte," "Desert Bloom," and "The Trip to Bountiful." Like VanWagenen's other projects, there's a homespun quality about this work, not only because it is frugally budgeted but because it reveals its old-fashioned values as humbly as does a kitchen sampler: Love thy neighbor.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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