Two Movies Tackle Strife at Home

The face of domestic violence shows in New Zealand and English productions

THE news is that a trend continues: An increasing number of responsible films are exposing and exploring problems of domestic abuse and family troubles.

The latest examples are ``Ladybird Ladybird,'' an English movie now opening in American theaters after debuting at the New York Film Festival, and ``Heavenly Creatures,'' a New Zealand drama due on United States screens next month.

The bad news is that Hollywood isn't playing much part in this activity. In the main, American filmmakers take a superficial view of family, exploiting domestic distress for its melodramatic value but generally failing to probe the causes and consequences of abusive behaviors in the home.

It may be argued that fuzziness and fantasy have always been Hollywood's stock in trade, and they are to be expected even where serious subjects are concerned. While this is true, it's an attitude that gives us wish-fulfillment fabrications that suggest social and historical forces will slip obediently into line if we just think positively.

It's worth noting that ``Heavenly Creatures'' contains more vivid fantasies than any scene in ``Forrest Gump,'' yet manages to examine key aspects of modern-day malaise with an honesty that puts Gumpishness to shame.

``Ladybird Ladybird'' is the most urgently relevant to current social issues. This is especially true after the recent elections in the US, which could lead to new attitudes regarding government's role in helping disadvantaged people.

Based on actual events, ``Ladybird Ladybird'' centers on a woman named Maggie who was the victim of physical and psychological abuse during childhood, and has re-created this pattern by gravitating toward abusive men in her adult life.

Now the mother of four children, she is forced to put all of them into foster care after one is injured in a household accident caused partly by her own negligence. She wants desperately to regain custody of the youngsters, but finds herself thwarted by a number of factors. These range from her continuing poverty to an uncontainable rage that erupts at undiplomatic moments, such as during interviews with social workers.

Matters are complicated further by Jorge, the new man in her life - a gentle and compassionate fellow in all respects, but also an illegal Paraguayan immigrant.

``Ladybird Ladybird'' tackles this troubling tale with documentary-style realism, showing profound sympathy with the protagonists while dispassionately revealing the enormous divide that exists between ideals of harmonious family life, on one hand, and a network of inadequate social policies, on the other.

Watching the film is like being on an emotional roller coaster, and the ride becomes almost overwhelming when Maggie's desperation reaches such heights that she begins having new babies in order to regain the active motherhood that society has taken away from her.

The movie was written by Rona Munro and directed by Ken Loach, a clear-eyed filmmaker with a long record of socially committed work. Heading the excellent cast, Crissy Rock gives an explosive performance that deserves dozens of awards. Easily one of this year's 10 best pictures, it's one of the rare films that make you think and feel with equal fervor.

Also based on real events, ``Heavenly Creatures'' takes place in a New Zealand city during the 1950s, a decade still regarded as a time of untroubled ``Ozzie and Harriet'' contentment by some who don't remember the period too accurately.

The main characters are Pauline and Juliet, teenagers whose friendship is anchored in a shared love of pop culture - the songs of Mario Lanza, American movie stars, and especially romance novels, which prompt them to invent their own imaginative realm populated by kings, commoners, and tempestuous passions.

So deep is the companionship of Pauline and Juliet that they can't bear to be separated, even when their families try to split them up.

Driven to distraction by this and other problems, including Juliet's uncertain health, they decide to flee their homes - after murdering Pauline's mother, perceived as the biggest hurdle to freedom.

Two elements of ``Heavenly Creatures,'' which was directed by Peter Jackson, raise it above the level of a lurid melodrama.

One is the movie's clear criticism of the girls' families for failing to look beyond their own prejudices and assumptions about adolescence - a mistake that clouds their perception of the girls' troubles.

The other is the remarkable fact that while the later history of the real-life Pauline is not known, the real-life Juliet left prison five years after the murder, moved to a community in Scotland, and earned international respect as Anne Perry, a popular mystery-novel author whose works are known for their recurring interest in repentant murderers.

``Heavenly Creatures'' delves into the mysteries of adolescent angst and anomie less deeply than the recent Canadian movie ``Fun,'' to which it bears amazing similarities.

Still, this inventive drama from Down Under conveys a powerful impression of the hazy line that may be drawn between imagination and reality by immature minds. And considering that the real Juliet has lived a decent and productive life since her years in prison for the crime, the film makes a potent argument for rehabilitation at a time when ``tough on crime'' ideologies threaten to eradicate that concept.

* ``Ladybird Ladybird'' and ``Heavenly Creatures'' are not rated; both contain scenes of violence and sexuality.

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