MEN DON'T LEAVE Jessica Lange, Arliss Howard, Joan Cusack, Chris O'Donnell. Directed by Paul Brickman. 1990. Rated PG-13. (Warner tape, 115 min., Hi-Fi stereo, DS, CC, $89.95)

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as any surprise that a movie as subtle, as complex or as fully and deeply felt as "Men Don't Leave" would pass silently into oblivion in its theatrical release -- for these are precisely the qualities that usually don't win wide audience approval or the plaudits of the critics.

Critics may celebrate nasty little potboilers to establish their bona fides as "jes' folks," or they may decipher abstruse chamber dramas to establish their bona fides as intellectuals. But who wants to be caught in the precarious position of championing a movie because it is affecting? Who wants to be accused of being an emotional sucker?

From its striking first image of a boy walking down a barren road to its last line about the power of family to bring salvation, "Men Don't Leave" is unashamedly affecting without also being tearjerking -- though it admittedly sounds like a tearjerker.

If video serves any purpose, it is to rescue a movie like this one from undeserved neglect.

In the film, a typical middle-class family is suddenly destabilized when the father is killed in an accident. The mother, Lange, finds a job, but she doesn't earn enough to pay off her husband's debts. So she and her two sons reluctantly decamp to Baltimore, where she gets work in a food boutique. She meets a sensitive musician, Howard, and presumably (as this story usually goes) she gets her life back on track. But if you presumed that, you would be wrong.

As he did in his first movie, "Risky Business," which deconstructed the teen-movie genre, co-writer and director Brickman employs conventions the way a jazz musician uses a melody. He is more interested in the variations, the riffs, the twists, and ultimately the meaning of the conventions. So in "Men Don't Leave," the mother doesn't cope. She destructs so fully and so painfully that she can't get herself out of bed.

The boys don't cope either. The musician doesn't redeem them. Life comes clattering down around them. Or, as Lange tells her son when he runs away in search of the security of the past, "Heartbreak is life educating us."

If this sounds melancholy, it's meant to. Despite some inspired comic moments -- Howard takes Lange to a polka party -- and a wonderfully ditzy performance by Cusack as an X-ray technician who moves in with Lange's teenage son, "Mean Don't Leave" is a movie of abiding sadness. It is not about sexual ecstasy, independence, coping and renewal. It is about romance, dependence, the inability to cope and the claws of the past that prevent renewal.

Most of all, though, it is about how much we need one another and how, in a cold and lonely world, it is family that sustains us, makes us whole. These may not be fashionable sentiments nowadays, and "Men" took some critical hits for being "politically incorrect" by suggesting that perhaps women do need men (and vice versa). But I doubt you will see a better performance than Lange's or a better movie than "Men Don't Leave" this year.

VIDEO REVIEW MAGAZINE THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP