Family dramas and comedies have always drawn crowds to the movies. Their continuing appeal is illustrated by the important roles they play in recent offerings as different as the excellent "Election" and the offbeat "Limbo." More stories emphasizing the eccentricities in family ties are now arriving on multiplex screens.
My Life So Far plugs into one of the most commonplace family-film formats: the "Life With Father" scenario, based on memories of long-ago experiences with a dad who's not quite ... perfect.
The way his son Fraser remembers him, Edward Pettigrew is one part genius and one part screwball. Edward divides his time between flamboyant schemes - experimenting with airplanes, building Europe's only moss factory - and self-centered whims that drive his household crazy.
Other strong personalities inhabit the bucolic 1920s Pettigrew estate, including Edward's long-suffering wife and a sympathetic maid who helps young Fraser through the trials of growing up. Their lives take a tumultuous turn when visitors show up. Among them are Uncle Morris, a no-nonsense businessman who plans big changes when he inherits the family fortune, and his fiance, Heloise, whose continental charms work too much magic on innocent Fraser and his not-so-innocent father.
"My Life So Far" orchestrates these ingredients into an inspired tale. The story isn't helped by too-familiar plot twists (young Fraser gets curious about sex) and characters who'd be more interesting to know if today's entertainment weren't so crowded with them (yet another gay best friend).
The cast is excellent, though, from young Robert Norman as Fraser to Colin Firth as his dad, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his mom, Malcolm McDowell as the ominous uncle, and Irene Jacob as the fiance. The picture was directed by Hugh Hudson, who hasn't scored a hit since the overrated "Chariots of Fire" in 1981. "My Life So Far" isn't likely to be a box-office giant, but it's leagues above Hudson flops like "Revolution" and "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes." It should appeal to audiences tired of the summer's flashier fare.
Another film that focuses on young people and parents is Rosie, which hails from the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. Filmmaker Patrice Toye wrote and directed it with quiet sensitivity.
The title character is a 13-year-old girl whose mother, Irene, was only 14 when she was born. Irene works hard to raise her daughter right, but feels so embarrassed by her youthful indiscretions that she presents Rosie to the world as her sister, even refusing to let the child call her Mom at home. It's hard to grow up with such a conflicted mother-daughter relationship, and Rosie develops emotional problems that increase when Irene meets a new boyfriend. This situation leads to a final revelation about the family that threatens to push Rosie over the edge.
"Rosie" is not a happy tale, but sensitive acting and perceptive filmmaking make it touching rather than harrowing to watch. Best of all is Aranka Coppens's portrayal of the young protagonist, carrying off a complex performance that might challenge an actress twice her age.
*'My Life So Far,' rated PG-13, contains sexual innuendo and vulgarity. 'Rosie,' not rated, contains sexual situations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society