Making her narrative feature directing debut, septuagenarian singer-actress Connie Stevens has gathered an accomplished cast for “Saving Grace B. Jones,” an “inspired by a true story” memory piece set during the Great Flood of 1951.
Like many first-time directors, Stevens tries too hard to be “cinematic”; the material would have benefited from a more restrained approach. But at its most straightforward, the film is an effective drama about a 10-year-old city girl’s eye-opening summer in the rural Midwest.
After an ill-advised piece of purple-prose voiceover narration (delivered by Stevens, who wrote the screenplay with Jeffry Elison), the movie zeros in on Carrie (Rylee Fansler), whose widowed father sends her to family friends in small-town Missouri, for a wholesome getaway, after she witnesses a murder on the streets of Brooklyn.
At the home of baker Landy (Michael Biehn), things quickly become complicated.
A compassionate man, Landy has been trying for 17 years to get his troubled sister, Grace (Tatum O’Neal), released from the state asylum. Over the objections of the horror-house hospital’s director (Piper Laurie) and the town preacher (Scott Wilson), Landy brings Grace home to live with him and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and daughter (Evie Louise Thompson).
O’Neal is achingly sad as a woman who’s unused to the simplest social interaction, and the movie goes off the rails with catastrophe. Grace’s distress intensifies along with the rains.
More judicious use of music and more fluid editing would have better served the adult actors’ understated performances. The child’s awakening is more told than felt, but the film ably captures the painful messiness of seemingly simple lives.
“Saving Grace B. Jones.” MPAA rating: R for some violent content and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.