"An American Rhapsody" is the most heartfelt of movies, and how could it be otherwise? The emotional, stranger-than-fiction true story it's based on is that of its writer-director, Eva Gardos.

Made with care and respect, "American Rhapsody" manages to skirt the edge of excessive sentiment without falling victim to it. It doesn't hide from the fact that its thrust is especially emotional, but being truthful to the core of a nightmarish reality was important enough to Gardos that she kept mawkishness mostly at bay.

Critical to this is the confident, straight-ahead performance of Scarlett Johansson as the film's teenage protagonist, Suzanne. With impressive credits that include "Manny and Lo," "The Horse Whisperer," "Ghost World" and the Coen brothers' upcoming "The Man Who Wasn't There," Johansson is rapidly becoming one of the top young screen actresses, and her piercing, unfussy work here shows exactly why. "American Rhapsody" opens in 1965 with 15-year-old Suzanne standing on Budapest's celebrated Chain Bridge and letting us know via voice-over that, young as she is, her life is "already falling apart. So I came back to Hungary, where it all began."

That signals a flashback that begins with Suzanne as an infant and her parents, Margit and Peter (strong performances by Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn), about to embark on the most pivotal night of their lives.

Members of the Hungarian intelligentsia (he's a book publisher, she's a daughter of privilege), Margit and Peter have set up a complex escape route that will allow them and their oldest daughter to flee the repressive Soviet bloc for Vienna and then the U.S. Every immigrant pays a price, invariably unforeseen, for relocating; for this family, the cost will be especially bitter.

The plan is that youngest daughter Suzanne is to be left behind, but only for a night: Someone else will be bringing her to Vienna. But that careful plan comes to naught. A spur-of-the-moment, emotional change of heart leads to a catastrophic result: The family goes on to the U.S., but young Suzanne is left behind in Hungary, destined to be raised by a loving, childless couple, Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) and Jeno (Balazs Galko).

The narration splits here, divided between the family gingerly adapting to unsettling life in Southern California and Suzanne having the most idealized childhood imaginable deep in rural Hungary. While a distraught Margit and Peter are trying everything they can think of to get her back, young Suzanne is unaware that the people raising her are not her natural parents.

That changes at age 6, when a confused Suzanne (the waif-like Kelly Endresz Banlaki) is spirited away from the Eastern European countryside and transported to Southern California's alternate reality. She learns about Coke and TV, but is so uncertain about what is happening to her that the only word she can think of to call her agitated mother is "lady."

"An American Rhapsody" goes to another level when Johansson enters the picture as the contemptuous teenage Suzanne, whose age-specific rebelliousness is raised to a higher power because of her feeling that she does not belong anywhere.

Teen anguish is something we've seen, but the way a director who lived this story ("I was even worse," she says in the press notes) combines with Johansson's classic lost sullenness makes her savage fury the most compelling part of the film. A trip to Hungary, to the root of the problem, seems the only way out.

Living the story also contributed to another of "American Rhapsody's" strengths, its evenhandedness. Despite the agonizing experiences she went through, writer-director Gardos has empathy for everyone involved. She understands that once forces were set in motion, whoever the situation touched--her parents, her foster parents, her sister, herself not least of all--was fated to suffer. As Suzanne's grandmother says, mistakes were made, but they were "mistakes made out of love," and that finally has made the difference.

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MPAA rating: PG-13, for some violent content and thematic material. Times guidelines: suitable for teenage audiences.

'An American Rhapsody'

Nastassja Kinski: Margit

Scarlett Johansson: Suzanne

Tony Goldwyn: Peter

Mae Whitman: Maria

Balazs Galko: Jeno

Zsuzsa Czinkoczi: Teri

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Fireworks Pictures and Peter Hoffman present a Fireworks Entertainment/Seven Arts Pictures production in association with Colleen Camp and Bonnie Timmerman, released by Paramount Classics. Director Eva Gardos. Producers Colleen Camp, Bonnie Timmermann. Executive producers Jay Firestone, Adam Haight, Andrew G. Vajna. Screenplay Eva Gardos. Cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi. Editor Margie Goodspeed. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, Vanessa Vogel. Music Cliff Eidelman. Production design Alex Tavoularis. Art director Tamas Hornyaszky. Set decorator gnes Menyhart. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

In limited release.