MOVIE REVIEW : 'LUCAS': THE JOY, PAIN OF GROWING UP

Times Staff Writer

"Lucas" (selected theaters) is as irresistible as its slight, brilliant, bespectacled 14-year-old hero (Corey Haim), a kid who in his spare time catches insects in a net--but only to study them, not to kill them.

He's quick to explain this to Maggie, a pretty 16-year-old redhead (Kerri Green) when he comes upon her at a tennis court in their affluent suburban Chicago neighborhood to which she has just moved. He also explains that he's "accelerated" (because of his high IQ), and that they will be in the same class in high school.

But right now it's summer, and the two strike up a friendship that might not have developed had they met later on. Inevitably, their relationship is going to change once school begins, something which Lucas does not anticipate, overlooking how crucial their two-year age difference can be in matters of the heart.

In his directorial debut writer David Seltzer has saved his best script for himself. You could not ask for more sensitivity, subtlety or perception in the appreciation of high school students and their emotions. Seltzer's teen-agers are funny, vulnerable, often courageous and immensely likable, and they are entirely believable without being totally preoccupied with either sex or drugs as are most kids we see on the screen.

Seltzer treats them as people, but with an acute awareness that they are not yet adults. Not even a time-lapse camera could be more observant of the often painful process of growing up, and Seltzer directs his actors with the same skill with which he writes their dialogue. One amusingly inspired moment deftly charts the course of his youngsters' emotions. During choir practice we watch them all glance in the direction of their current, respective objects of affections: Petite brunette Rina (Winona Ryder) toward Lucas (who of course barely knows she exists); Lucas toward Maggie, but Maggie toward Cappie (Charlie Sheen), a football star, and also Alise (Courtney Thorne-Smith) toward Cappie, whom she fears she is losing to Maggie. There's going to be a short circuit here for sure.

In the first flush of puppy love, Lucas, however, is not about to give up Maggie without a fight--even if it means momentarily forsaking his values and even his common sense. But in Seltzer and Haim's skilled hands, Lucas is neither a fool nor a sellout to himself but an honest-to-God hero who makes you wish that you might have been as brave in your own youth--if not perhaps as foolhardy as Lucas. Yet the consequences Lucas experiences are refreshingly realistic on the one hand and heartening on the other.

Seltzer's cast is flawless. Haim, who was Sally Field's son in "Murphy's Romance," suggests genius without insufferable precociousness and reveals the agonizing difference between emotional and intellectual maturity. Sheen, who exudes naturalness, manages to be handsome without being self-conscious and surprisingly--he is, after all, a jock--emerges as the film's most consistently sympathetic figure. Green radiates a lovely, intelligent normality.

In the well-wrought "Lucas" (rated PG 13 for a couple of blunt words) Seltzer, a seasoned heart-tugger, forsakes the shameless manipulation that has marred many of his previous scripts. Without resorting to the tear-jerking of affliction ("The Other Side of the Mountain, I & II") or death ("Table for Five"), Seltzer has at last moved us and made us laugh with his young people in their coping with everyday life.

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