"Frances" is the tale of The Star, and Jessica Lange portrays the late actress Frances Farmer in stellar fashion. Though she looks like her, she's almost too beautiful for the role. But then, this was true of the real Farmer, who in the 1930s was too beautiful to be taken seriously.

Frances Farmer was also intelligent and talented, yet the deck was stacked against her. In this version of her life story, these are the faces on the cards: the selfish mother who wants her daughter to be what she couldn't be, the weak father, the hard-nosed movie mogul, the brutal policeman, the condescending psychiatrist, the playwright who dumps her and the boyfriend who keeps taking her back. Unfortunately for the real-life Farmer, the ever-loyal boyfriend didn't exist: Harry York (played by Sam Shepard) is a fictional convenience.

Jessica Lange is charming and sweet as the young Frances, who at 16 scandalized Seattle by winning a national contest with an essay saying God had died of old age. Farmer had a knack for espousing unpopular causes. There were high hopes for her when she landed in Hollywood, but they weren't her hopes. She wanted Broadway, serious acting. She got contract trouble.

As Farmer the angry young woman, Lange can be impish -- when she shocks a policeman while she's being arrested for slugging her hairdresser -- and explosive -- when she swears with gusto. The volatility contrasts with a sad, lost-soul quality.

In the film, the years in institutions -- where she is subject to every possible treatment and every indignity -- are punctuated by visits home. She always has to go back to mother (Kim Stanley), where the real battleground lies. When she runs away and police chase her to return her to mother's custody, a fellow drifter asks, "What did you do?" "You know," Lange says wistfully, "I've never been able to figure that out."

What's especially striking about Lange's portrayal is that it confirms the ambiguity: Farmer's independent behavior was either crazy or it was, simply, ahead of its time.

"Frances" explores what psychiatrist and author Thomas Szasz called "the myth of mental illness." Though the film depicts Farmer as total victim, without the free will to turn down an amphetamine pill, it still effectively raises the question of responsibility: Was it the world's fault or hers, or both?

Did Frances Farmer, as she says in the movie, behave like a patient because she was treated like one?

FRANCES -- At the Jenifer I Cinema.