'What Alice Found'

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"What Alice Found" is too surprising and provocative to be revealed here, even though the film took a top prize at the Sundance and Deauville festivals and, therefore, some readers will surely already know its secret. A. Dean Bell's irresistible picture represents a career high point for the distinguished Judith Ivey, a terrific showcase for lovely newcomer Emily Grace and yet another fine performance from character actor Bill Raymond. "What Alice Found" proves to be sweet, suspenseful, funny, poignant — and adult.

Grace's Alice is a small-town New Hampshire 18-year-old who has decided to flee her miserable existence as the impoverished daughter of a single mother she is ashamed of. She takes off for Florida in her old car to join a friend who is about to start college and major in marine biology. Working with dolphins is about the greatest thing Alice can imagine; she'll work out how she can afford higher education once she gets to Miami.

That is, if she ever gets there. After resisting crude overtures from some passing rednecks, Alice pulls off at a New Jersey rest stop only to return to her car to find a tire spiked, her engine conked out and her stash of money missing.

She has caught the attention of an immediately solicitous middle-aged couple, Sandra (Ivey) and Bill (Raymond), traveling in an immense RV, who urge her to call the cops. Alice would rather avoid the delay, and because her car is useless, she accepts the couple's invitation to hitch a ride. They too are Florida-bound, but at a more leisurely pace.

It seems that Bill, somewhat older than Sandra, is a retired serviceman and that the couple live like rolling stones, traveling anywhere they please — "Anywhere the snow ain't," as Sandra puts it. They're a warm, folksy couple, and soon Alice is responding to their parental affection, which extends to Sandra buying a few inexpensive but pretty dresses for Alice and teaching her how to apply makeup.

Gradually, Alice discovers how lovely she really is.

Everything seems to be too good to be true, and sure enough, the big question for Alice — and for the audience — is this: Are Sandra and Bill who they seem? And if they aren't, who are they? Could they have sabotaged Alice's car, and if so for what purpose?

Yet as the plot unfolds, with flashbacks filling in the reasons Alice left home, Sandra nevertheless emerges as a woman who has seen it all, survived it all and learned to make the best of it. She is tough, realistic, philosophical and good-humored, but at her core, when it counts, will she prove to be merely hard or ultimately vulnerable — or somewhere in between? Ivey's Sandra is flat-out one of the year's best performances.

Scrupulously fair-minded yet deliciously ambiguous, "What Alice Found," a triumph of sound psychological and artistic judgment, is an unexpected treat for sophisticated audiences.

'What Alice Found'MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, nudity and languageTimes guidelines: Strictly for adultsJudith Ivey...SandraBill Raymond...BillEmily Grace...AliceJane Lincoln Taylor...Sally, Alice's motherJustin Parkinson...Sam A Factory Films in association with Highland Entertainment presentation. Writer-director A. Dean Bell. Producer-cinematographer Richard Connors. Executive producers Don Wells, J.C. Chmiel, Rita Fredricks, A.P. Feurerman. Co-cinematographers Wychie Stubblefield, Edwin Martinez. Editor Chris Houghton. Costumes Michelle Teague. Art director Bryce "Paul Mama" Williams. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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