Unlike all those recent American movies that seem, somehow, alien corn, Daniel Petrie's "Square Dance" (at the Music Hall) has the flavor of one kind of American life down pat.

Jacek Laskus' camera catches the look of rural Texas and Fort Worth, and Petrie's actors catch some of the rhythms. The film has a dry, hot texture: in the country, trees and ground, the way the wind stirs the grass. And in the city: the cheap, flattened-out look of the houses, the way the sunlight seems to bend over the gas pumps and neon dance-hall signs.

The movie is based on a novel that screenwriter Alan Hines took partially from boyhood Texas memories. Its central character, Gemma (Winona Ryder) is another child on the brink. Just 13, she's forced to choose between two worlds: the settled, rural life of her grandfather, Dillard (Jason Robards), and the messier, more exciting, dangerous city terrain of her mother, Juanelle (Jane Alexander)--who fled home at 15, and abandoned Gemma later.

The grandfather represents solidity, tradition; he's a cranky, quirky old harmonica-player. The mother, Juanelle--a hairdresser married to a gas station owner--lives in a world of gas, booze and cosmetics, of casual promiscuity and get-rich-quick schemes.

The whole conflict is schematic. It suggests Larry McMurtry and "Hud" as well as the obvious influences: McCullers, Capote, Harper Lee. And Hines also serves up that Southern Gothic touchstone: the tender, scorned idiot, Rory (Rob Lowe), a sweet, slack-jawed lad who loves Gemma.

"Square Dance," like other "heartland" movies, is both celebratory and satiric. It casts a fond eye on Gemma's rural, religious roots at the same time it attacks the city and its materialism.

The dialogue is salty, the milieu precisely sketched. The script has limitations; it's a derivative coming-of-age story and, in a way, you feel that Hines, a Fort Worth boy who settled in New York, is cheating. (His characters return home, though he didn't.) Yet, if "Square Dance" isn't really great material, the movie Petrie and company get from it, is often luminous, rich and firm as the earth. It's a good, classically pure and honest piece of American film making, with two great performances.

It also shows how good mainstream U.S. film artists can be when they focus clearly on their own country. Petrie's last film was the semi-autobiographical "Bay Boy." He's a fine, earthy director, whose virtues are idealism, close observation, compassion--and this is just the type of vehicle to bring them out. He sets the material and his actors to their best advantage; they're all admirable.

As Juanelle's buddy Gwen, Deborah Richter has a juicy, clinging sensuality; Guich Koock is faultless as the stolid husband, Frank. Rob Lowe's Rory is a good job, if too studied. It's not the cracker Mortimer Snerd routine you might expect, but, as elsewhere, Lowe's charisma outstrips his inspiration. High schooler Ryder--who was lovely and touching in that underrated gem "Lucas"--is lovely and touching here. It's a complex role, with many demands, and, most of the time, she's fully up to it. If, occasionally, you feel a perfunctory quality in her readings, it's still an impressive feat.

Robards and Alexander are great actors who know exactly what to do with every opportunity they're given. They have plenty of opportunities here, and they make their scenes, simple in outline, soar with emotion. The way Robards says, "Yes ma'am, you do," when Gemma asks if she looks like her grandmother; the way Alexander catches her character's weary, rote sexuality, her emptily cynical romanticism (dreaming of oil riches while living above a gas station)--at their best, they shatter you. Alexander rarely tries roles like this, but she never makes a false step with Juanelle. She conveys her shallowness and selfishness, and she shows her adventurousness too--and why she can love Gemma, and still fail her. Juanelle is like a tonic that's gone flat. In her dull, searching eyes and the sag of her flesh, there's a horrible glimpse of dreams gone sour, life at a dead end.

Author Hines has stacked the deck a bit too much; once we sense his ideas, and genre, he can't really surprise us. But a story can move you even if it's predictable, and that's what "Square Dance" (rated PG-13) accomplishes. It makes contact with its people, its land; it makes us feel for them; it hews out a slice of the earth, our earth, and makes it real. 'SQUARE DANCE'

An Island Pictures release of a Michael Nesmith presentation in association with NBC productions. Producer Daniel Petrie. Director Petrie. Script Alan Hines. Executive producers Charles Haid, Jane Alexander. Camera Jacek Laskus. Music Bruce Broughton. Editor Bruce Green. Production design Jan Scott. With Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Winona Ryder, Rob Lowe, Deborah Richter, Guich Koock.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).

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