Grassroots movie-making has taken Hollywood like a sudden twister. "Country," with its cousins "Places in the Heart," "The Natural" and "The River" (still to come), celebrates down-home virtues like saying grace and standing by your neighbor.

"Country," though shamelessly manipulative, is a heartwarmer, with a heroic woman as its focus. Windows in an Iowa farmhouse glow like hearths against the frozen prairie, like Jessica Lange herself, beautiful even with her hair in curlers. Lange, co-producer and star, is as stalwart as the farm woman she portrays, Jewell Ivy, whose strength of spirit unites her family as the government forecloses on their farm.

Lange, who refused safer roles to produce her own film, is aided by screenwriter William D. Wittliff, whose worthy script explores not only the family in crisis but also an endangered American icon, the small farmer mowed under by bureaucracy and agribusiness.

Sam Shepard is opposite Lange as affable Gil Ivy, a farmer who can look a tornado dead in the eye, but whose temper can't take the test of a bureaucratic bamboozle at the FHA. He starts to shrivel in spirit, to drink, to auction off the tractors along with his wife's legacy, the land her family's tilled for a hundred years. But Shepard imbues his character with such strength that his transformation is unconvincing. At least, he's man enough to play a coward.

The Ivy family, a comfortable, stable team, begins to erode when Gil deserts. But Jewell, with a fat baby on her hip, flour on her fingers and courage in her heart, rallies the Ivys and other farmers against the government auctioneers in the film's most cathartic scene.

Also starring are Wilford Brimley as the grandfather, and Therese' Graham and Levi L. Knebel as the rivaling siblings. All the performances are fine as silk on new corn, even the baby's (Stephanie-Stacie Poyner), who coos up a storm. The most remarkable performance of all is Jim Ostercamp's. Developmentally disabled since birth, he debuts here as Cowboy, the mentally handicapped son of a bankrupted farmer.

Director Richard Pearce's cinematic heritage -- including the acclaimed "Heartland," the story of another courageous American farm woman -- made him the right man for the job. Pearce, realizing the great capacities of his cast, gives them wide-open space and allows the film to become as much the story of the landscape as of a dying breed.

All the same, "Country" is not a perfect film: The villains are overdrawn, the farm folk are over- romanticized and some of the Iowan extras look uncomfortable in front of the cameras. But somehow, that's okay, too. They ought to be there, like the fenceposts strung with barbwire, prickly, rugged and individual. COUNTRY -- At area theaters.