NEW YORK — It has taken "Georgia" more than six months to make its way from the Cannes Film Festival to American theater screens, but this is one of the rare occasions when a long wait will be amply repaid. Ulu Grosbard's drama is a striking achievement.
The protagonists are sisters with music-centered lives. The title character, played by Mare Winningham, is a country singer who never reached for big-time success but has become a headliner anyway, at the expense of strained relations with her family. Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, Sadie, is a would-be rock star whose regrettably excessive habits recall the worst aspects of Janis Joplin's short-circuited career.
"Georgia" was directed by Grosbard from a thoughtful screenplay by Barbara Turner, who is Leigh's mother in real life. In his best films, Grosbard shows a special talent for eliciting strong performances - his drama "Straight Time" is almost legendary as a compendium of great late-'70s acting - and here that skill combines with creative editing and imaginative visual compositions. The stars deserve loud applause, too. Winningham has never been more memorable, and Leigh mobilizes all her resources for the wrenching challenge of Sadie.
With all this excellence to offer, why did "Georgia" take so long to get a United States release? Adding my own speculation to inside information, I think I've figured out what happened.
The film's producers asked a high price for distribution rights, reckoning that famous names like Leigh and Winningham point to big box-office prospects. But distributors saw bottom-line blues in the picture's melancholy mood and downbeat finale. The movie hovered in distribution limbo until Miramax Films decided it needed representation in this year's New York Film Festival - which had already selected "Georgia" as one of its offerings - and realized Leigh could well be a best-actress contender in the coming Academy Awards race. Known for its deep pockets and adventurous tastes, Miramax finally took the plunge, and moviegoers can now reap the benefits.
*"Georgia" has an R rating. It contains vulgar language, emotional violence, and substance abuse.