Two things every director hopes to do: put their daughter in one of their films*; and make their own private AMARCORD/’73, Federico Fellini’s heightened childhood memory-pic. (Vincente Minnelli’s MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS/’44, while not autobiographical, is the Hollywood paradigm.) And if writer/director Robert Benton’s anger-free look back at his hardscrabble youth in small town Depression Era Texas comes up top-heavy with grace & goodness (Sally Field’s unsinkable young widow is Ma Joad, Mother Teresa, Mother Courage & Scarlett O’Hara in one cute indomitable package), he invests so much personal feeling & detail into each lovingly recreated incident (even the purloined ones**), it’s all but impossible to resist. Perhaps helped, rather than hindered, because Benton remains, at heart, more writer than visual stylist, with a lack of fuss from lenser Néstor Almendros’ work, held back from the swooning ‘money’ shots of his DAYS OF HEAVEN/’78. Beautifully cast, Danny Glover’s handyman/cotton planter exceptional; Ed Harris’s brother-in-law with a wandering eye spectacularly sexy, even when his secondary storyline (a love triangle) feels shoehorned in for its contrasting texture. But most of the film, which largely follows Fields’ attempt to bring a cotton crop in on time to pay the mortgage, draws exactly the cards needed to keep things flowing, occasionally exciting and emotionally moving when needed. With Benton managing a sort of Texan’s Magical Realism depth-charge of a blessing as tag ending.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: **Casual narrative swipes from great literary works are one thing, but Benton actually lifts ‘The Bishop's Candlesticks’ episode right out of Hugo’s LES MISÉRABLES.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Yes, it applies equally to male & female directors: put the daughter in the pic.