Dysfunctional families have become such a movie-screen clich that even sex comedies like "Talk to Me" and action fantasies like "Lost in Space" manage to work one in somehow. Less common are pictures that treat this serious subject with the seriousness it deserves, and that's what makes the understated drama "Home Before Dark" worth noting.
The heroine is 11-year-old Nora, an ordinary schoolgirl growing up in a Massachusetts town during the early 1960s. Her life would be commonplace and contented if not for the emotional instability of her mother, Dolores, who's bereft over the accidental death of her eldest children and - in a more recent development - obsessed with the notion that the late President Kennedy had a close connection with her and her family.
Dolores is eventually hospitalized, and when her husband decides that single parenting is beyond his capabilities, Nora goes to live with a well-meaning aunt. This proves unsatisfactory for all concerned, and Nora returns home to her dad, determined to find some way of making the household work. This leads to a series of dilemmas and confrontations that call on Nora to be far more resourceful and resilient than she dreamed she could be.
"Home Before Dark" marks the moviemaking debut of Maureen Foley, a Massachusetts resident who clearly has firsthand familiarity with the sorts of places and personalities that populate her story. Although her directing style is rarely innovative or surprising, it has the virtues of sincerity and authenticity, and it's refreshing to find a filmmaker who cares so deeply about her characters.
Good acting also helps. Stephanie Castellarin is an excellent Nora, supported by a well-chosen roster of established talents: Patricia Kalember, of "Sisters" and "thirtysomething," as the mother; Katharine Ross, of "The Graduate" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," as the aunt; and Brian Delate, of various movies and TV shows, as the father. Their efforts help make "Home Before Dark" one of the season's more worthwhile independent entries.
* Not rated; contains material related to sex and illness.