Friday September 11, 1998
"Digging to China," actor Timothy Hutton's directorial debut, has managed modest theatrical distribution, but it's a decidedly small-screen endeavor. The film benefits from a strong performance from newcomer Evan Rachel Wood in the role of a precocious little girl who has far more energy and imagination than sense. Unfortunately, there's not much else to recommend this earnest and prosaic coming-of-age drama, which fairly screams "Lifetime Channel."
Wood plays Harriet, a tart-tongued pre-adolescent loner enduring the '60s with a boozing, eccentric mother (Cathy Moriarty) who is never far from a vodka bottle or her next ominous cough and a slatternly "sister" Gwen (Mary Stuart Masterson), never far from the next in a hopeless string of low-rent suitors. They live in an amorphously defined stretch of lush Pennsylvania backwoods, struggling to maintain a dilapidated roadside motel.
One day, a broken-down car sputters up to their doorstep, containing crotchety Leah (Marian Seldes) and her mentally disabled adult son Ricky (Kevin Bacon). Leah's taking her son to a hospital where he will be cared for after she dies of cancer (why they trekked from California to Pennsylvania to institutionalize Ricky is unexplained). Apparently, one dying mom isn't enough for this push-button weeper, so it thoughtfully serves up two.
While Leah's car awaits repairs (which, in the film's context if not quite in real time, seems to take weeks), Harriet befriends Ricky; though their antics are innocent enough, Gwen finds their age difference troubling. (Obviously she had never seen "As Good as It Gets" or "Six Days, Seven Nights" or "Horse Whisperer," etc.).
"Digging to China" seems to be intended as an actor's holiday for the usually versatile Bacon. Nonetheless, with wrists and elbows at angles usually reserved for bebop music and his head rolling about his shoulders like a ball weighted left of center, Bacon never manages to suggest anything besides a drama student tackling an acting exercise.
The film wants to remind you of "Rain Man" so badly that it even co-opts the song "Iko Iko," also used in the earlier movie for its requisite pop-ditty soundtrack. Hutton's directing is sensitive but patchwork. He leaves viewers too much downtime to ponder such questions: How do cheap helium balloons manage to remain aloft for days and days? And if Gwen is so concerned when Harriet turns up missing, wouldn't she do something besides lounge around the house?
More vexing is the lack of psychological underpinning explaining why Harriet gets so close to Ricky so quickly. If "Digging to China" (the title refers to a toss-off scene run under the credits) really cared to explore the vicissitudes of a loveless childhood, it should have dug a little deeper.
Digging to China, 1998. Unrated. Distributed by Moonstone Entertainment, in association with Davis Entertainment Classics and the Ministry of Film. Director Timothy Hutton. Screenplay by Karen Janszen. Producers Marilyn Vance, Alan Mruvka, John Davis, J. Todd Harris. Director of photography Jorgen Persson. Editors Dana Congdon, Alain Jakubowicz. Music Cynthia Millar, Elmer Bernstein. Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes. Evan Rachel Wood as Harriet. Kevin Bacon as Ricky. Mary Stuart Masterson as Gwen. Marian Seldes as Leah.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times