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‘Strangers in Good Company’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 13, 1991

An enchanting reverie by Canadian director Cynthia Scott, "Strangers in Good Company" sneaks up on you like your first gray hair. It's a small, unlikely treasure featuring a cast of eight mostly elderly nonprofessional actresses. It fairly shimmers with their memories and cheers us with their resilience.

The screenplay, written by Gloria Demers with improvisation from the cast, is as unambitious as it can be. Something of an Outward Bound on Golden Pond, it sets seven great gray ladies on a journey and leaves them to fend for themselves when their sightseeing bus breaks down in rural Quebec. The robust younger driver (Michelle Sweeney) twists her ankle when she steps out to check the engine, so the frail 70- and 80-year-olds have to do the heavy lifting.

A disparate group of old -- but not cute -- darlings, they bring skills as varied as herbal medicine-making and belly dancing to the business of surviving. The mechanically inclined nun (Catherine Roche) tries to fix the bus with an emery board while the others drag straw pallets to an abandoned house that becomes their refuge. Alice Diabo, a Mohawk Indian, proves handiest of the lot when she constructs a fish net from a pair of pantyhose.

The setting, a soothing lake melodious with birdsong, encourages the sharing of confidences, and through a series of quiet conversations they reveal themselves to each other and to us. These nonprofessionals, in their modesty, achieve an intimacy few stars can. All their wrinkles and woes can't quite hide the last shadows of beauty, but Scott intrudes from time to time, splicing in girlhood photos. It seems redundant.

These elder sisters remind us in subtler ways that they were young once. Winifred Holden, the belly dancer, entertains the others with a routine, curiously limber and graceful in her baggy polyester pantsuit. And Cissy Meddings, a Cockney widow, is still as full of mirth and curiosity as a 2-year-old. There's a wonderful moment between Cissy and Mary Meigs, an artist who explains that she hasn't a man in her life because "you know, Cissy, I'm a lesbian." Seeing the logic in this, Cissy observes, "Oh, that's good."

The film makes no attempt to gloss over the infirmities of age, nor does it pretend that old people would not rather be young. Constance Garneau, the lone nonagenarian, can no longer hear the white sparrow's song, even though the bird answers her own perfect imitation of its call. She and Beth Webber are the sad ones. Prim and vain at 83, Webber wears a wig over her thin gray hair. A great beauty once upon a time, she won't stop trying.

Contemplatively photographed by David de Volpi, "Strangers in Good Company" is a kind of road movie sitting still. Told without condescension or cliches, it rejuvenates the genre. Seven old ladies sitting around talking -- why not hear them out?

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