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Dustin Putman

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A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998)
3 Stars

Directed by James Ivory
Cast: Leelee Sobieski, Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Jesse Bradford, Luisa Conlon, Samuel Gruen, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Dominique Blanc, Jane Birkin, Harley Cross, Isaac de Bankole, Virginie Ledoyen.
1998 – 125 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 10, 1998.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," is the first James Ivory-directed film I can recall that is set after the 1930's. Granted, this bit of information doesn't really hold very much importance, but I am glad that Ivory has made something a little bit away from his norm, and it paid off.

The film starts off during the 1960's, where the Willis', an American family living in France, adopt Benoit (Samuel Gruen), a young boy whose real mother was only fifteen when she gave birth to him. Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson), a writer, and his wife, Marcella (Barbara Hershey), are just about the best parents he could hope for. They are caring, considerate, and generally good people. Their daughter, Channe (Luisa Conlon), is just about Benoit's age, and although she is, at first, put off by a new member in the family, she quickly becomes attached to her new brother. In these opening sections, not much occurs in the way of a clear-cut story, but it is deceptive. By choice, Benoit's name is changed to Billy, to sound more American. Channe gets into trouble at school when she forges her father's signature. She also has a peculiar run-in with a boy around her tender age of eight who makes sexual advances towards her. Life goes on.

It is in the last ninety minutes when, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," grows the most momentum and becomes especially heartfelt and truthful. About seven years pass, leaving Channe and Billy to now be young teenagers (now played by Leelee Sobieski and Jesse Bradford). When signs that Bill may be forming a heart disease, the family moves back to the United States, and as he desperately tries to finish a book he has been writing before he dies, Billy grows distant from everyone, and, not knowing how to act as a young adult, Channe becomes highly promiscuous at school.

Through everything that occurs during the film, the element that most stands out is the warm, unconventional relationship between Channe and her father, who does not look down on Channe when he discovers she has been having sex, but instead, sympathizes and understands what she is going through. In one particularly startling, perfectly realized moment, Bill tells Channe and her boyfriend to stay at their house for the night. "I'd rather you be under my roof and doing it properly, rather than being in the backseat of a car," he says. Bill is the type of father who cares so much for his children, that he would risk anything for them, and we really get a sense of the love that he feels for Channe, and vice versa. In another touching scene, after Channe has gone to a party for New Year's Eve, leaving her family at home, she calls her father right after it turns midnight to wish him a happy new year, knowing that he very well may not be around the following year.

It is in the individual moments and particular performances that make, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," a much better film than it might have been if, say, a Hollywood studio had made it. The film deals with many serious subjects, but never grows heavy-handed, nor predictable, in its telling of the story. It is easy to throw in a lot of sappy melodrama into a drama, but it is far more effective to stay true to the film and always remain realistic, and that it what this picture does.

The film is broken into three chapters, which is a nice, but unnecessary, touch. The first chapter, "Billy," tells of when Channe and Billy are young children; the chapter, entitled "Francis," focuses on Channe, now a teen, and her strong friendship with Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo), a boy who remains faithful to Channe, even though he knows they will never be more than buddies; and the final chapter, called, "Daddy," centers on the family after they return to the United States. It is the second two chapters that are the most successul, as the opening section is more about the set-up of the characters. "Francis," is strenthened a great deal by its gentle relationship between Channe and Francis, as well as Costanzos memorable and accurate performance. In one particular scene that stands out, Channe gets her period while in class, and Francis works her through the problem so that she will get out of the class without anyone else knowing what has happened. The performances in the film are all natural and beautiful to watch. I cannot recall Kris Kristofferson having such a humanistic role before, and he couldn't have been better. Barbara Hershey, at first, seems to be playing one-note until the climax, in which we learn much more about her, and she is given some well-written scenes with her two children. But as good as all of the performances are, it is Leelee Sobieski ("Deep Impact") who is a standout. In her portrayal of Channe, Sobieski is so honest and unaffected that, for me, it stopped being a performance and became a real character, as if she were in a documentary. It is one of the most effortless performances I have seen from a youth, and she deserves an Oscar nod for her work here.

"A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," although occasionally uneven, is one of the best films I have seen in a while that has to do with family, and gets most of the details right. The things that are dealt with, in lesser hands, may have turned into a television "Movie of the Week," but director James Ivory obviously knew what he was doing when he made this film. It is also evident that Ivory felt a deep connection with the material, as if it were somewhat autobiographical. The movie rarely feels written. Although, perhaps, there could have been more of a driving force behind everything that happens throughout, it in no way dampered my feelings for the film. "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," is a powerful film about families, in general, and the many problems they face each day.

©1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman