TV REVIEW : Keaton's Touching 'Wildflower' on Lifetime

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The TV movie "Wildflower," the first full-length directorial feature from Diane Keaton, has aspirations toward naturalistic realism in its 1938 Georgia setting, but at heart it's pure Gothic fairy tale, as appealing as it is unlikely. (It premieres tonight at 9 on the Lifetime cable channel.)

What the telepic has going for it above all is the winsome presence of two actresses who lit up the big screen in underseen films earlier this fall, Patricia Arquette ("Indian Runner") and 15-year-old Reese Witherspoon ("The Man in the Moon"). Arquette in particular triumphs in a role that defies credibility in its swollen romanticism--the feral child transformed into a beautiful princess.

When curious neighbor Witherspoon first comes across her, Arquette is locked in a shed; it seems her abusive parents have mistaken the teen's epilepsy and deafness for retardation, or possession, and have banished her since childhood to darkness. Witherspoon and her older brother, played by William McNamara, coax Arquette out and clean her up. Surprise--this sickly feral child has perfect teeth and, after a shampoo, looks just like Chynna Phillips or, in certain profile, young Jessica Lange.

Naturally, college-bound McNamara is smitten by this gorgeous revelation of a girl, but the fact that she's only beginning to read, write and talk coherently poses social-correctness dilemmas, as do her brutal dad and the initial reluctance of his own father (Beau Bridges) to take her in.

Arquette is too good to be true, not just in looks but her character's near-instant adjustment to emotional health after a lifetime of isolation and battering. Nonetheless, this terrifically talented actress makes you want to suspend disbelief anyway: Her evocation of an uneducated, near-deaf youngster's awkward speech construction is wholly convincing, and her innocent, yearning glances nigh heartbreaking.

Witherspoon, unfortunately, doesn't have nearly as much to do as the heroine here as in her remarkable "Man in the Moon" debut, but she's still as magnetic a teen as is working in the movies right now, Southern period pieces or otherwise.

Keaton does a fine job maneuvering her strong cast, though you can see some of the Lynchian stylization that infected the "Twin Peaks" episode she directed earlier this year also holding over here in a few self-conscious moments. She also can't disguise that Sara Flanigan's script, based on her novel "Alice," has a climax that seems as forced as it is irresolute.

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