In a time of crisis, the predictability of the parents' behavior and their sons' knowing ways of handling it are drawn at once with subtlety and exaggeration--a neat trick.
"Safe Passage" is a movie lover's best surprise: an unheralded film with zip. It is the story of Mag (Susan Sarandon) and Patrick (Sam Shepard), who have raised seven grown sons and are separated--worn down, it seems, by the grand effort.
Mag is in her second decade of erasure, just when a woman's soul begins to scream, "Enough!" She will not watch one more time as Patrick dunks his tea bag seven times and throws it over his shoulder into the kitchen sink. It's just such things as tea bags that trigger big emotions in women at the end of the in-house phase of family life.
For Mag, who has mothering in her bones, the on-their-own phase is even more harrowing than the earlier years of just keeping them alive. On this particular night, in a routine familiar to her family, she wakes up in a nightmare that something is wrong with one of her sons. Which one? A series of marvelous flashbacks show Mag as a primal protector of her young. No football collision or mad dog on a paper route ever modified her visceral response.
The family members gathers to wait for news of the threatened son, and by the time resolution comes, we know them very well. The boys know their mother will cover her fear by turning up Mazursky's "Pictures from an Exhibition" to full volume. One of them, a veterinarian, will spend the visit tracking his father's periodic bouts of blindness. In a time of crisis, the predictability of the parents' behavior and their sons' knowing ways of handling it are drawn at once with subtlety and exaggeration--a neat trick.
After an hour or so, we care about all of these people, from Simon, the 14-year-old youngest to Alfred, the oldest. The reason we care is that writer Deena Goldstone has written a script (based on the novel by Ellyn Bache) that is laced with good lines that reveal character. Give good lines to a good cast, and the rest is pleasure.
Susan Sarandon makes Mag a revelation of motherhood itself. From "I was 35 before I had a dinner where I wasn't cutting someone else's meat" to "Percy, you're absent from your own life, and you're breaking my heart," she's the mother whose children are part of her soul.
Nick Stahl is simply terrific. He acts with quiet grace at a very young age, making Simon a subtle mix of adolescence and filial love. Sam Shepard, still a man of few words, is fine as the man who drives his wife crazy by not understanding her turmoil. Robert Sean Leonard is very warm as Alfred, the organized eldest son who tries vainly to bring order to his family's chaos.
The movie's strength is that the resolution becomes secondary to the touching, very funny portrait of a family. It's a heart tugger with belly laughs. What a difference a scriptwriter makes.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
Studio: New Line Cinema
Rating: PG-13 1h37m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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