Movie review, 'Rain'

Thirteen-year-old Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki) is a girl just realizing the frightening, mysterious power of being a woman. On summer holiday in a beachfront cottage in her native New Zealand, she spends her nights at house parties watching her mother, Kate (Sarah Peirse), saturate herself with whiskey and flirt with men other than Janey's father, Jim (Aaron Murphy).

During the day Janey is back in kid mode, frolicking on the beach with her happy little brother, Ed (Alistair Browning). When a shy neighborhood boy approaches her with an invitation to hang out, she surprises him with a kiss on the mouth.

After the boy has fled, Ed asks, "Why'd you do that?"

"To scare him," Janey responds.

"Rain" is far from the first female coming-of-age movie, but it's one of the most vivid. Adapting Kirsty Gunn's novel, writer and director Christine Jeffs transports us to a specific place and moment: New Zealand's North Island, 1972, as a girl bears witness to the disintegration of her parents' marriage and the end of her childhood.

Janey is fascinated and appalled by her mother, who rarely lacks a glass filled with amber liquid. Even when Kate treads water off the side of a boat, she keeps a glass floating beside her. Kate is a lush, but she oozes sexuality. Peirse's skin is pulled tight against her prominent cheekbones, and her mouth is pursed in a perpetual pucker, as if she's sucking the world's most exquisite lemon.

Janey expresses her disgust with Kate's drinking, but she can't help but see the effect her mother has on men, particularly Cady (Marton Csokas), a rugged young photographer who lives on a boat offshore. The bearded Cady is a man's man, so virile that Janey's relatively soft father seems impotent by comparison, particularly as Kate initiates an affair with the other man.

Janey, who witnesses Kate's infidelity, soon is trying on her mother's dresses and imploring Cady to photograph her for what she says will be her portfolio. What she needs a portfolio for, she doesn't know, but it sounds like something she should have.

Jeffs gives a palpable sense of a culture trying to squeeze in its last bleary-eyed moments of partying before the hangover from the '60s kicks in. Janey's parents embody this desperate last grasping; when Kate and Janey stand side by side in a mirror, the mother can't help but express jealousy that the daughter is the one who's blossoming, not wilting.

Fulford-Wierzbicki does a spot-on job of occupying that space that Britney Spears explored in her instant-classic anthem, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." The young actress is a dark-haired, girl-next-door kind of beauty whose eyes convey more age and worldliness than her body.

Peirse, who played a much dowdier mother in "Heavenly Creatures," makes an indelible impression as a drunk who channels her wooziness into a simmering seductiveness. Csokas and Murphy, meanwhile, inject the right notes of bewilderment behind the strong fronts their characters try to present. "Rain" is at its best when it's making casual observations, such as the strange sensuality of Kate rinsing lemons in a sink. It becomes more problematic when it uses its narrative to make big points. As the ending approaches, the drama gets pumped up, the agenda becomes overtly moralistic and Jeffs treats the childhood's-end themes all too literally.

Still, in such a memory piece as "Rain," the plot points eventually fade. What lingers are the unsettling feelings, inexplicably potent images and realization that some of life's key crossroads are visible only in the rearview mirror.

3 stars
"Rain"

Directed and written by Christine Jeffs; based on the novel by Kirsty Gunn; photographed by John Toon; edited by Paul Maxwell; music by Neil Finn, Edmund McWilliams; produced by Philippa Campbell. A Fireworks Pictures release; opens Friday at the Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:32. No MPAA rating (sexuality, language).
Janey - Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki
Kate - Sarah Peirse
Cady - Marton Csokas
Ed - Alistair Browning Jim - Aaron Murphy

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

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