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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘WISH YOU WERE HERE’ GETS THE MESSAGE ACROSS

<i> Times Film Critic</i>

At the opening of David Leland’s rapturously good “Wish You Were Here,” blond, 15-year-old Lynda Mansell bikes precipitously across the bowling greens and seaside boardwalks of her somnolent English town. Skirts tucked thigh high, her emblematic pinwheel whirling away on her handlebars, Lynda is doing what she likes best--turning her staid neighbors on their ears. (The film opens Friday at the Cineplex, Beverly Center; Goldwyn Pavilion, Westside.)

Pinky-golden 16-year-old Emily Lloyd plays Lynda, her enormous blue eyes and full, short upper lip giving her the look of a wayward cherub. Lloyd’s performance is one of those extraordinary fusions of actress and character that defy you to pry them apart; the last portrayal this shiveringly perfect was Laura Dern’s in “Smooth Talk.”

Lynda is a diabolically tricky role; we must love her, put up with her flamboyance, watch her throw herself at horrifyingly unsuitable men, understand her motives and cherish her--all at the same time. It is to the credit of writer-director David Leland and his young star that our affection never wavers for an instant.

For 1951, Lynda is a cheeky handful, no doubt about it. She’s far too much for her barber-father, a widower since Lynda was 11. But even as the town reels from her latest bit of back-sass or her most scandalous display of long, long legs (and garters and silken knickers), we are haunted by an earlier vision of Lynda: a wartime snapshot of a little 11-year-old, sitting on a curb, wearing a gas mask that makes her look like the Elephant’s Child.

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It’s a disquieting image of aloneness, an underimage whose effect bleeds through the rest of the film. When Lynda’s cheerful self-destructiveness is at its peak--when she gives herself to a sinister, self-loathing man her father’s age, stinking of booze and cigarettes--that image of her at 11 is still there, reminding us of the loss that has shaped her life. “Wish You Were Here” is something more than the words on a souvenir post card, it’s a cry from the heart.

However, there is an upward lilt to Lynda’s brashness that keeps us laughing even when we’re the most aghast, when she persists in offering herself to “drips” and worse. Dave, the bus conductor, with his grandmum’s vacant house, his yellow pajamas and his lousy technique, is her sweetly hilarious but unpromising start. Her next partner is infinitely worse. But her father’s reaction, when he learns the identity of this man, is a betrayal of classic proportions.

To give an essentially comic film such dark undertones is dicey stuff, yet Leland and Lloyd bring it off. (The film’s R rating is for its nudity and undeniably salty language.) They’re aided by the film’s wonderful period flavor--by Caroline Amies’ production design, by Ian Wilson’s cinematography, which casts the scenes in mother-of-pearl tones of breathtaking loveliness; by a grandly evocative score by Stanley Myers and the quiet perfection of Shauna Harwood’s costumes.

How the film avoids being maudlin or flaunting its bravery is amazing. It has something to do with its specificity. Leland has a reason, a purpose, a history for every character--and for every claustrophobic brick row-house or damp, echoing picture palace. His vision is as precise and as acute as Woody Allen’s re-creation of the Rockaway Beach of his childhood in “Radio Days.”

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“Wish You Were Here’s” seaside spa is as much on its last legs as the ancient boardwalk tap dancer who begins and ends the film. Festooned with the badges of empire, a sort of Britannic Baby Jane, she taps away gamely to herself on the chilly, deserted boardwalk--a relic whose gallantry almost stifles our giggles.

(Leland was equally evocative in “Mona Lisa,” co-written with its director Neil Jordan, and his earlier “Personal Services.”)

Leland is careful that Lynda doesn’t exist in a vacuum; his characters are full and rich. They persist in our memory: Lynda’s baffled, ungiving father (Geoffery Hutchings), clothed in the most smarmy self-righteousness; her good, affectionate aunt (Pat Heywood); Dave (Jesse Birdsall), her bright-eyed “worldly” first lover, and the chilling, insinuating Eric (Tom Bell, as memorable as he was in “The L-Shaped Room” more than 20 years ago). There are performers without a line, like the grande dame of the tea room piano, whose moments are like a pure, ringing bell.

“Wish You Were Here” may always be thought of as the movie that first gave us Emily Lloyd. Or as David Leland’s first directing achievement. It might also be a humbling lesson to certain American film makers that the road to cinematic heaven is not paved with Xeroxed copies or towering budgets, but with wit, bravery, originality and a sure and certain affection for your subject.

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‘WISH YOU WERE HERE’ An Atlantic Entertainment Group and Film Four International presentation of a Zenith Production in association with Working Title. Producer Sarah Radclyffe. Writer, director David Leland. Camera Ian Wilson. Editor George Akers. Production design Caroline Aimes. Costumes Shauna Harwood. Music Stanley Myers. Art director Nigel Phelps. Sound Billy McCarthy. With Emily Lloyd, Tom Bell, Geoffery Hutchings, Jesse Birdsall, Pat Heywood, Heathcote Williams, Geoffrey Durham, Charlotte Ball, Chloe Leland, Abigail Leland.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).


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