"Hard Choices" (Laemmle's Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex) is all nerves and gristle and bunched-up sinew--a taut little film without any fat. It begins quietly and easily--by the sunlight and splash of a rural stream--and immediately starts racing toward darkness and deadly confrontations.

The movie keeps surprising you. For the first few minutes, it seems to be another low-budget American "heartland" film about a struggling, poor white Tennessee family. Then, as if with a shriek of gears, we take off: drugs, crime and violence shoot into the rural gloom.

We might be roaring hellbent through early '70s Roger Cormanland--but, just as suddenly, the story veers and becomes a social drama about prisoners, vile conditions in Southern jails and the people trying to improve them. Have we arrived comfortably in the terrain of Martin Ritt or Daniel Petrie? Not exactly. Two or three more sharp turns are left before we hit a disturbing climax.

It's a good film--not extraordinary, but solid and steady. At the drama's crux is teen-ager Bobby Lipscomb (Gary McCleery) and the battle waged by his social worker, Laura Stephens (Margaret Klenck), to keep him from being charged in adult court for robbery and murder: Bobby, out of family loyalty, was manning the getaway car while his older brothers ruinously bungled a drugstore burglary. But "Hard Choices" is never the simple, tried-and-true liberal fable you might expect. Writer-director Rick King concentrates with a documentarian's eye on background. He never lets the film drown in its own overview or sentiments.

Every surprise in "Hard Choices" is keyed to character. You can puzzle over it afterward, over the ironies, twists and turns--and it all meshes, it all makes sense. Something in it has the freezing inevitability of fate. Every blunder, every wrong turn and reckless plunge is cued: the kinds of mistakes these characters, in these circumstances, probably would have made.

But the inexorability never crushes you. There's a salty, funny edge to the scenes that heightens the sense of truth. King never forces a joke, but if he and the cast can work for an honest laugh--even in a situation that may seem appalling, they often go for it.

Some of the characters--such as Larry Golden and Tom McCleister as Bobby's sleazy prison mates Carl and Blinky--are drawn with the punchy gusto and black relish of a rowdily comic movie like Aldrich's "The Longest Yard." All the actors--including John Snyder and Martin Donovan as brothers Ben and Josh, John Seitz as Sheriff Staples, and John Sayles as dope smuggler Don--give well-honed, finely observed performances.

In a way, Seitz and Sayles define the edges of the movie, the dangerously consistent world it evokes. Seitz's sheriff is no stomping, melodramatic, good-ol'-boy villain, chewing up cigars and hapless inmates. He's the movie's most purely decent character, beefily humane, rigorously just. (If this man, we sense, is the agent of skewed justice, there's nothing left to blame but the law itself.)

And Sayles--who usually acts only in his own movies--has the loose, wary mannerisms of this rich-boy outlaw Vanderbilt cocaine dealer down pat. His kindness to Klenck's shiningly idealistic Laura (with its devious sexual undercurrents)--provides "Hard Choices' " (Times-rated: Mature) most cutting irony. The two are ex-radicals or dropouts who worked their way to opposite corners of the system. But Don is also a tempter, part of the machinery of chaos. If he eventually helps Laura and Bobby in a crisis, we have to remember that it was brother Josh's addiction that spurred the Lipscomb family catastrophe and every hard choice and cruel road that followed.


A Lorimar presentation of an Earle Mack production. Producer Robert Mickelson. Director Rick King. Writer King. Editor Dan Loewenthal. Camera Tom Hurwitz. Music Jay Chattaway. Production design Ruth Ammon. With Margaret Klenck, Gary McCleery, John Seitz, John Sayles, John Snyder, Martin Donovan, Larry Golden.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (violence, nudity, language, sexual scenes.)


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