Directed by Anthony Drazan. Starring Harvey Keitel, Fairuza Balk, Elisabeth Moss, Kelly Lynch, Seymour Cassel, Vincent D'Onofrio, Chris Penn. (1994, PG, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 9, 1994
Never was there a man more ill-equipped to be a father who tried so terribly hard to be one. Such are Sonya Weiler's sentiments about her father Ray, a widower raising his two young daughters in the 1950s. Ray (Keitel) is either a wishful dreamer or a calculating scam artist, always on the verge of some big mineral strike in the Cascade Mountains and always past due on the rent and other payments. There is something terribly human and terribly American about his strike-it-rich expectations and his perpetual economic shortfall. Though Ray is forever working some financial con, it's clear that his most gullible mark will forever be himself. He has an inordinate ability to believe, year in and year out, that his dream house is merely one deal away. The one thing that is certain is Ray's love for and devotion to his two children, Sonya (Balk) and Greta (Moss), and his wife who died when the girls were young. He fusses and worries over their well-being and somehow makes sure they also have the extra things, like private school and dance class. Of course, they also lie about his whereabouts whenever the phone or doorbell rings. The young teenager Sonya, through whose voice this story is told, is old enough to remember her mother (played by Lynch in flashbacks) and recognize her father for the man he is. Though she has no doubt of his love, she is often embarrassed by his actions and inured against his empty promises. She has functioned much as a mother to her younger sister Greta, who is too little to recollect her mother and too naïve not to trust her father. Anyway, this aberrant but love-filled home-life provides rich material for Sonya's English class essays, and her teacher, played charismatically by D'Onofrio, encourages her to write and apply to college. In many ways, Imaginary Crimes is reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Elia Kazan's debut film about a young girl -- a budding writer -- who grows up in the tenements under the influence of her alcoholic dreamer of a father. Both stark and joyful, sad and life-affirming, the young writer in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn draws inspiration, strength, and rich source material from her father (played by James Dunn, who won an Oscar for his performance) while also learning from his example some of the harsher facts of life. Both these movies about the “sentimental education” of the young female writer are marked by their stellar performances. Keitel and Balk deliver exquisitely honed performances which are bolstered by fine support work by Lynch, Cassel, and D'Onofrio. Film director Sam Fuller even makes a small appearance in the film. Director Drazan who scored with his last outing, Zebrahead, has a real talent for eliciting wonderful performances within the potentially claustrophobic confines of the small, personal drama. Written by first-timers Kristine Johnson and Davia Nelson, Imaginary Crimes is the kind of story that reminds you that sometimes less is ever so much more.