It’s getting so rare for an American movie to try something challenging or unusual with the actual stuff of people’s lives that when an honest attempt seems to fall short, it becomes doubly saddening.

The people who made the film of Marsha Norman’s striking play “ ‘night , Mother” (selected theaters) did it with all good intent. They’ve tried to be true to their source, bring out all the play’s value. (Norman herself wrote the screenplay, and the director, Tom Moore, has guided it from its stage beginnings.) The actresses who play the central (and only speaking) roles, Sissy Spacek as the daughter and Anne Bancroft as the mother, are superlatively gifted, two of the best--and both of them are obviously giving their all.

Yet good as it is, and much as you’d like to praise it unreservedly, something about the screen “ ‘night, Mother” refuses to jell. The movie is an actor’s showcase: Bancroft and Spacek have great moments. But neither, oddly, seems a perfect choice for her part. Bancroft is too earthily elegant; Sissy Spacek--even in this stab at making her dowdy and drab--too painfully pretty and radiant.


And the action, which may seem paralyzingly real on stage, has somehow become distanced. Not everyone may agree--but it’s hard to be caught up in the emotional machinery, to accept the situation (potential suicide). This story--which depends for its impact on the spectacle of fairly ordinary people plunged into an extraordinary crisis--seems instead to be about two extraordinary women trapped in the ordinary: in some weird Middle America “No Exit.”

In the play, a garrulous, self-indulgent but frightened old woman named Thelma Cates spends several hours trying to talk her daughter Jessie out of a suicide attempt. It seems a futile effort.

The daughter--pale, introverted, an epileptic who never leaves the house--has decided that life is no longer worth living, and she goes about her “last night” with the calm self-assurance of someone settling all accounts. Family has been no solace for Jessie: She’s the daughter of a loveless marriage, an abandoned wife, the mother of an incorrigible, delinquent son. Little in her life has brought her happiness, and nothing more seems likely to. (The only current pleasure she speaks of passionately is cigarettes.) She has decided that killing herself is the only option that will “work.”

It’s a spare, integral drama--and Norman and Moore don’t “open it up” for the movie; they keep the women confined to the house and each other. And they’ve supplied near-constant stage business (cocoa-cooking, sofa-covering), the camera tracking along as Jessie roams from room to room, dutifully tying up loose ends, with her mother--confused but slyly chatty--trailing behind her.

All this movement kills any suggestion of static theatrics--but in a way, it’s too energetic. (Rather than wonder if Jessie will kill herself, we may begin wondering which room she’ll seek out next.) The camera’s intimacy may also expose something not obvious in the grip of a live performance: a crucial imbalance of sympathies.

When you read Norman’s script, you automatically envision a joust between mother and daughter: This slightly foolish, ill-equipped, but desperately determined old woman trying every stratagem she can to keep her daughter alive, while the daughter keeps kicking out the props and marching resolutely to her doom. It’s a battle you feel should keep going on exhaustingly, right to the last moment.


But, for the first half of the film, the battle never seems joined--except in the moments when Thelma becomes incensed. Anger or joy seem to release Anne Bancroft; like Jack Nicholson, she shines at rage. (Her last scenes are terrific.) But all the fussy, superficially banal little ruses and conversations--the things Geraldine Page might have exulted in--don’t come as naturally here. Often she seems to be forcing, twisting herself in knots.

What may also unsettle you is the way most of Thelma’s arguments seem set up to be knocked down. Jessie’s negative statement is never convincingly countered, and she never seems to question it, even slightly. You get the uncomfortable feeling that Norman and director Moore perceive Jessie’s actions as semi-heroic. And it’s difficult to accept any suicide as heroic--however you agonize for the person who chooses it. Self-annihilation, unless it’s a sacrifice for another, seems an ultimately selfish act: The people we admire most are often those who choose to go on, regardless of pain or suffering.

There’s more than selfishness: There’s even a touch of sadism in the way Jessie breaks the news to her mother. If this were recognized more deeply, if there were a more visibly nasty strain to her character--if she didn’t seem so often a perpetual victim saying “No, in thunder” to her family, her seizures and the whole rotten world--it would, paradoxically, be a stronger, more sympathetic and terrifying role. (As it is, when Norman changes Jessie’s generalized diatribe in the play from “the Red Chinese” to “the man in the White House,” you feel “author’s message” buzzing in your ear.)

Despite everything, Marsha Norman’s dialogue--pointed, lucid--is far superior to most of what you’ll hear in movie houses these days. And Spacek and Bancroft, whatever your reservations, act their hearts out. In the end, maybe that’s what’s most important--though you’d rather be swept away in pain and compassion than merely to soberly nod and admire.