NEW YORK — The Deep End of the Ocean" begins on a deceptively calm note, as a mother heads for a high-school reunion with her two little boys in tow.
In a crowded lobby she leaves them alone for a moment, and when she returns one of them has vanished, destroying her tranquillity in an instant.
Her first reaction is panic, then anguish, and then as days turn into weeks and months enduring grief and guilt. Life goes on, but her pain goes so deep that she hardly dares trust her senses when she realizes she may have discovered the child a decade after his disappearance.
The experiences this woman goes through are so poignant, unsettling, and suspenseful that it's surprising how little the movie manages to do with them.
On the plus side, Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams are convincing as the parents. Ryan Merriman and Jonathan Jackson are even better in the main adolescent parts. Whoopi Goldberg adds flash as a sympathetic detective, and John Kapelos is best of all in the underwritten role of a neighbor who holds a key to the mystery.
On the minus side, the filmmakers fall short of their own high standards. The director, Ulu Grosbard, fails to elicit the heartfelt acting that made pictures like "Straight Time" and "Georgia" so memorable. The screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, loses the atmospheric depth that distinguished his recent "Lolita" adaptation. And few would guess that Elmer Bernstein is one of the screen's greatest composers from the cloying set of tunes he turns in here.
Fans of Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel may find enough echoes of the book to justify the price of admission. But others can see this sort of thinly crafted melodrama in TV movies every week. For free.
*Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language.