"Lianna" is the second low-budget dramatic feature written and directed by the remarkably resourceful novelist-filmmaker John Sayles.

Though liberally sprinkled with examples of Sayles' glib, funny dialogue, "Lianna" takes a rather shallow plunge into topicality and emerges in a far from compelling state of wistful dampness. The watery, lilac-scented connotations of the title cling to the material, a calculatedly "understanding" account of the difficulties experienced by a belittled little faculty wife named Lianna Massie (Linda Griffiths). Rashly overrating the advantages of coming out of the closet, she not only responds to the lesbian overtures of an older woman named Ruth Brennan (Jane Hallaren) but also abandons marriage and family with a swiftness that alarms even her lover, who teaches child psychology and prefers to be discreet about her romantic predilections.

The case history Sayles slaps together leaves the impression that Lianna is a babysitter in search of a mother figure to cuddle and comfort her. For a while Sayles toys with the suggestion that Lianna might really blossom out of her long-suffering, madonna-faced drabness and emerge as the most promiscuous newcomer at a lesbian disco bar called My Way. However, he abandons this "option" as absentmindedly as the heroine dropped her conventional domestic status, perhaps upon reflection that audiences might be reluctant to dote on a heroine who preferred to leave her kids in the custody of a snide, philandering spouse in order to find fulfillment as a gay floozy.

It's impossible to overlook the fact that Lianna seems to crave the solace of older women. Ruth, presented as her grand passion, is certainly old enough to be Lianna's mother and thinks in the practical, common-sense terms that seem to elude the heroine. Ultimately, when her lesbian love affairs fizzle, leaving her feeling a tad insecure and disillusioned, Lianna evidently finds what she needs when Sandy (Jo Henderson in a very believable, unassuming performance), a friend who had been appalled at the news of her homosexuality, softens and offers the prodigal one a tolerant maternal shoulder to sniffle on.

Of course, Sayles may be on to something here, and a funnier fairly obvious something than he has the nerve to explore, but there's no getting around the deflating dramatic fact that his approach to Lianna's sexual vicissitudes remains patronizing and equivocal to a fault.

"Lianna" runs into trouble right from the beginning because of fundamental miscasting. Linda Griffiths might be passed off as the doormat wife of a contemptuous small-time professor like Jon DeVries' Dick Massie, identified in the early stages of the movie as the smarmiest hubby since Richard Benjamin in "Diary of a Mad Housewife." But the overwhelming obstacle to credibility is her lack of maternal vibes. Griffiths never suggests the foggiest emotional connection to the juveniles cast as her daughter Theda and wiseacre son Spencer (Prof. Massie is a movie nut). This pivotal casting miscalculation heads a list of defects that suggests Sayles may have liabilities as a director that were obscured by the auspicious wittiness and spontaneity of his first feature, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven."

Mawkishly conceived, the leading role is finished off by being entrusted to a colorless young actress. Sayles appears to have an inadequate notion of Lianna to begin with, aggravated by his failure to inspire or at least cover up for Griffiths. Although made on a less restrictive shoestring budget--$300,000, compared with the ridiculously economical $60,000 that bankrolled "Secaucus Seven"--"Lianna" is hazier and shakier in both dramatic and pictorial terms, in part because of a wide-angle 35mm blowup that seems to cause focusing problems and in part because Sayles appears generally less sure of what needs to be observed or emphasized in any given scene.

It's also Movies 'Lianna': Glib Dive, Shallow Waters By Gary Arnold

"Lianna" is the second low-budget dramatic feature written and directed by the remarkably resourceful novelist-filmmaker John Sayles.

Though liberally sprinkled with examples of Sayles' glib, funny dialogue, "Lianna" takes a rather shallow plunge into topicality and emerges in a far from compelling state of wistful dampness. The watery, lilac-scented connotations of the title cling to the material, a calculatedly "understanding" account of the difficulties experienced by a belittled little faculty wife named Lianna Massie (Linda Griffiths). Rashly overrating the advantages of coming out of the closet, she not only responds to the lesbian overtures of an older woman named Ruth Brennan (Jane Hallaren) but also abandons marriage and family with a swiftness that alarms even her lover, who teaches child psychology and prefers to be discreet about her romantic predilections.

The case history Sayles slaps together leaves the impression that Lianna is a babysitter in search of a mother figure to cuddle and comfort her. For a while Sayles toys with the suggestion that Lianna might really blossom out of her long-suffering, madonna-faced drabness and emerge as the most promiscuous newcomer at a lesbian disco bar called My Way. However, he abandons this "option" as absentmindedly as the heroine dropped her conventional domestic status, perhaps upon reflection that audiences might be reluctant to dote on a heroine who preferred to leave her kids in the custody of a snide, philandering spouse in order to find fulfillment as a gay floozy.

It's impossible to overlook the fact that Lianna seems to crave the solace of older women. Ruth, presented as her grand passion, is certainly old enough to be Lianna's mother and thinks in the practical, common-sense terms that seem to elude the heroine. Ultimately, when her lesbian love affairs fizzle, leaving her feeling a tad insecure and disillusioned, Lianna evidently finds what she needs when Sandy (Jo Henderson in a very believable, unassuming performance), a friend who had been appalled at the news of her homosexuality, softens and offers the prodigal one a tolerant maternal shoulder to sniffle on.

Of course, Sayles may be on to something here, and a funnier fairly obvious something than he has the nerve to explore, but there's no getting around the deflating dramatic fact that his approach to Lianna's sexual vicissitudes remains patronizing and equivocal to a fault.

"Lianna" runs into trouble right from the beginning because of fundamental miscasting. Linda Griffiths might be passed off as the doormat wife of a contemptuous small-time professor like Jon DeVries' Dick Massie, identified in the early stages of the movie as the smarmiest hubby since Richard Benjamin in "Diary of a Mad Housewife." But the overwhelming obstacle to credibility is her lack of maternal vibes. Griffiths never suggests the foggiest emotional connection to the juveniles cast as her daughter Theda and wiseacre son Spencer (Prof. Massie is a movie nut). This pivotal casting miscalculation heads a list of defects that suggests Sayles may have liabilities as a director that were obscured by the auspicious wittiness and spontaneity of his first feature, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven."

Mawkishly conceived, the leading role is finished off by being entrusted to a colorless young actress. Sayles appears to have an inadequate notion of Lianna to begin with, aggravated by his failure to inspire or at least cover up for Griffiths. Although made on a less restrictive shoestring budget--$300,000, compared with the ridiculously economical $60,000 that bankrolled "Secaucus Seven"--"Lianna" is hazier and shakier in both dramatic and pictorial terms, in part because of a wide-angle 35mm blowup that seems to cause focusing problems and in part because Sayles appears generally less sure of what needs to be observed or emphasized in any given scene.

It's also clear that his snappiest attribute, a flair for amusing repartee, can degenerate into a cliche'd glibness. As ultraprecocious Spencer, Jesse Solomon might as well be auditioning for his own sitcom; his patter is already too professionalized for the context of "Lianna," and he doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to his alleged parents anyway. On the other hand Sayles can be wonderful at certain kinds of fleeting conversational comedy, exemplified in the casual remark thrown at Lianna by a neighbor who finds her staring morosely at the TV: "Hey, lighten up! It's only 'Laverne and Shirley.' " graphics/photo: Linda Griffiths, left, and Jane Hallaren in "Lianna" clear that his snappiest attribute, a flair for amusing repartee, can degenerate into a cliche'd glibness. As ultraprecocious Spencer, Jesse Solomon might as well be auditioning for his own sitcom; his patter is already too professionalized for the context of "Lianna," and he doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to his alleged parents anyway. On the other hand Sayles can be wonderful at certain kinds of fleeting conversational comedy, exemplified in the casual remark thrown at Lianna by a neighbor who finds her staring morosely at the TV: "Hey, lighten up! It's only 'Laverne and Shirley.' "