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‘Rambling Rose’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 20, 1991

Martha Coolidge's "Rambling Rose" hangs on the screen like a web spun out of glistening memories, and at its center is not a spider but a jewel. It's a soulful remembrance, a vision of nostalgic romance, set in an idealized South that existed probably only in the minds of hypersensitive boys like Buddy, the story's narrator, whose recollections blaze with the refracted light of their own sexual awakening.

These vivid embers of childhood memory come back to Buddy, now an older man (played by John Heard), as he stands on the front porch of his family's Southern home, remembering the sweltering August day when a gangly, disheveled wreck of a girl, glazed with sweat and dust, and carrying a battered suitcase, loped to the foot of the front stairs and into his family's life, transforming it forever. It was 1935 then, and he was only 13 (played by Lukas Haas). The young woman was 19 and her name was Rose (Laura Dern). She was an orphan and was headed for trouble -- she seemed on the verge of becoming a prostitute until Daddy Hillyer

(Robert Duvall) and his wife (Diane Ladd, Dern's real-life mother) took her in.

She is, in a sense, both hired and adopted. Daddy, who is fond of nicknames -- he calls his 5-year-old son Waski and his 11-year-old daughter Doll -- immediately dubs her Rosebud and, in his grand, aristocratic manner, welcomes her to her new home. "You are as graceful as the capital letter S. You will give a glow to these old walls."

What Duvall does with the role of Daddy is sheer magic. In a career crowded with great characters, this is his most effusive, grandiloquent performance. Daddy is an old-style Southern gentleman, an educated man with lavish manners and a broad streak of theatrical eccentricity. His presence as an actor has never been larger, or more generous, than it is here; Daddy seems to have released the ham in him. Never has he shown this kind of self-satisfied comic zest and confidence.

From their very first meeting, Rose has been mesmerized by this swaggering, larger-than-life figure. More and more, she blushes and becomes flustered by his attention, and, before long, convinces herself that she is in love. Her passion comes to a climax when, one night, while Mother is away, she throws herself into his lap. Coolidge, who has never shown this kind of delicacy and control, handles the scene beautifully, capturing both the slapstick clumsiness and the eroticism of the moment. Daddy, who is unnerved, outraged and, at the same time, visibly excited, remains in control, gently turning back the girl's ardent professions of love. This is a great moment for Duvall, who shows just how deeply Daddy has to reach into his reserves of decency to resist temptation.

It's a wondrous scene for Dern too. This is a miraculously natural young actress, completely uninhibited and without affectation. It's the character, unembellished by the mechanics of the actress, whose shifting emotions you experience.

Dern accomplishes her effects so invisibly and with such graceful ease that her skills may be under-appreciated, but pay attention. This is a spectacular actress arriving at the very peak of her talents. Even before this failed seduction, Rose had been a destabilizing force in the family, especially for Buddy, who makes her the object of all of his adolescent sexual curiousity. It's Buddy to whom Rose turns to after her fiasco with Daddy, slipping into the sheets with him for brotherly comfort and reassurance. Later, she turns to other young men in town, many of whom lurk around the house, hoping to catch a moment alone with her, and, sometimes, fighting with each other for her attention.

By this point, Daddy's patience has been stretched thin, and it's Mother who keeps the family steady in the water. This is a perfectly matched trio of actors, each one great in his own way. As Mother, Ladd is a rock of uncommon sense. There's something a little off in her thinking; she's a flake but a flake with unshakable convictions. Her relationship with Daddy is one of the most original husband-wife combinations in memory. The connection between them is a thread of poetry. Daddy both humors her transcendental ramblings and defers to her; she's a powerhouse, and much too wise to be ignored.

About halfway into the film, all three of these dynamic personalities are at full sail, and the pleasure of their interactions is heady stuff. The screen seems brimming, tensely, joyously crowded with strong temperaments in collision. Coolidge's greatest contribution, it seems, is to have rolled up the carpet and pushed all the furniture into the corners of the room. Calder Willingham, who adapted the script from his own novel, is more enamored of his characters, and in Rose's case, perhaps overly so. But her idealization is built into the boy's-eye view of her. "Rambling Rose" is a story of unrequited love; of Buddy's love for Rose, and Rose's futile love of love. The character, ultimately, is tragic. But she's a life-giver, and so is this funny, moving, spectacularly acted little film.

"Rambling Rose" is rated R for sensuality, nudity and adult situations.

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