Where in the World Is 'Georgia'?

The Monitor's movie critic asks why the filmfest favorite with popular appeal hasn't shown up at your local multiplex

THERE were lots of happy hearts when a movie called "Georgia" won the Grand Prix of the Americas, given by a six-person jury to the best picture shown in the World Film Festival this year.

The same hearts were bright when Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose virtuoso performance is the heart and soul of this excellent film, walked away with the best-actress award.

"Georgia" has been honored at other filmfests, as well. It was the opening-night attraction in the prestigious "Un Certain Regard" sidebar at Cannes, and it's been invited to the exclusive New York Film Festival, where being included in the lineup is considered a major accolade.

Needed: a distributor

But if this is such a good movie, why isn't it playing at your local multiplex? Why can't it find a distributor who'll bring it from the festival circuit to commercial theaters everywhere?

The film can't be called too esoteric for popular tastes. It focuses on two Seattle sisters who have realized their dream of becoming professional singers. Mare Winningham plays Georgia, a country-music star with a legion of fans and a contented family life at home.

Leigh plays Sadie, a rock-and-roller who's never found the discipline or self-confidence to get beyond the world of cheap saloons. The film reaches cruising speed when Sadie visits Georgia, and they struggle to maintain their lifelong affection while coping with bitter feelings that have complicated their relationship since childhood.

In addition to superb performances and a strongly emotional plot, "Georgia" makes unusually intelligent use of music as dramatic material, using the sisters' singing styles to highlight the differences in their lives and personalities.

Credit for this interesting approach goes to writer Barbara Turner, who created the engrossing screenplay, and director Ulu Grosbard, who brings to the movie his long experience in both film and theater.

All of which deepens the mystery as to why "Georgia" is stuck in distribution limbo - a runaway hit at festivals, but unable to find a niche in movie houses where discriminating audiences would surely embrace it.

It all began at Cannes

It's hard to pin down all the reasons for this strange situation, which probably originated at the Cannes film festival.

The movie gained in status from its prime spot in the "Certain Regard" program there, but it would have profited more by showing in the official competition, since it would then have been eligible for the sorts of prizes that Montreal has now bestowed on it.

A more important answer, hard to prove but highly plausible in light of current trends, reveals a lot about the dynamics of feature-film exhibition in the United States today.

With well-known stars like Leigh and Winningham in the cast - and with Leigh giving what the New York film festival rightly heralds as a performance of "legendary" quality - the producers of "Georgia" surely feel their picture has hot prospects on the commercial market. Hence, they think it should command a hefty price from whomever wins the bidding war to distribute it.

Happy endings only

Yet - and here's the zinger - the movie has a "downbeat" mood and an "unhappy" ending, which are considered fine for an "art movie" but out-of-bounds for a "mass market" picture. "Georgia" thus finds itself trapped between (a) producers who expect commercial-film profits and (b) distributors who feel its "gloomy" atmosphere puts it into the art-film category, which translates into specialized appeal and limited profitability.

Does this make any sense? The answer is yes if your eyes are fixed on the bottom line, but a resounding no if you care about the state of American cinema.

One hopes good sense will prevail - or that the producers and distributors will simply harass one another into agreement - so the admirable "Georgia" can make its way to local screens in the near future.

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