Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, April 3, 1998
Rated: R
Directed by Bob Gosse

Starring Robin Tunney, Henry Thomas & Michael Parks

Tragic misfit romance features Venice Fest winner Tunney as Tourette's victim

What is it about film characters with disabilities that inspire such great performances?

Oscars are handed out like candy to stars who put on all-encompassing ailments -- Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," Dusting Hoffman in "Rain Man."

Is it that mental, psychological or physical shortcoming allow actors to hide behind a mask of scar makeup or irrational behavior? Or is there something more to it, like that disabled roles free them from an image and allow them to completely submerge themselves in a character?

In the case of actress Robin Tunney, I think it may be something more complex. Her engrossing yet distant performance as a troubled girl with worsening Tourette Syndrome in "Niagara Niagara" lends this picture not just sympathy, but empathy. It is a compelling and sublte treatment of a condition that often puts "normal" people on the defensive.

Tunney, who you might remember from "The Craft," a 1996 teenage witchcraft movie, won Best Actress at last year's Venice Film Festival for this role. She co-stars with Henry Thomas (yes, the kid from "E.T.") in this eventually tragic misfit romance between two anti-social outcasts on an unusual road trip.

Playing Marcy, a Tourette victim whose involuntary physical tics and obsessive-compulsive behavior have shaped her personality by ostracizing her from peers and family, Tunney vibrates with nervous energy and demonstrates unquestionable talent in a demanding role.

Thomas stars as Seth, another fugitive from society who has developed a quiet, withdrawn demeanor at the hands of his abusive father and who is hanging on to his social skills by a thin thread. He also fully embodies his character, with a vulnerable, endearing gawky-ness.

The two meet while both are shoplifting at a department store and form an odd, co-dependent friendship.

Seth accepts without judgment Marcy's sudden tics, ritual touching and verbal outbursts. When he acknowledges them at all, it's usually to soothe her back to normalcy. In return, she nurses Seth's wounded soul, which is clearly in tatters.

A spontaneous trek to Canada in Seth's second hand police car provides "Niagara" with plot devices while the characters get to know each other. They end up instigating a mini crime spree while in search of medication for Marcy, who has left her prescription at home and drinks heavily as a substitute.

The story has its weaknesses as Seth and Marcy bounce through often simplistic plot developments predicated on convenient secondary characters (a tow truck driver takes them in after their car flips over). First-time director Bob Gosse could use a little brushing up on his elementary technical skills, too -- the microphone dips into the frame four of five times in just one scene.

But "Niagara" is driven by the subtly layered performances of Tunney and Thomas. So organic are these awkward lovers that they make the film's shortcomings almost entirely forgivable.

The tender, honest and accepting relationship between them, which locks out the rest of the world, is palpable and warm, even when Marcy's unpredictable behavior, and Seth's panicked inability to control her, set them on a course toward what for most other people would be an avoidable tragedy. Although, "Niagara Niagara" is at its best when these two are just quietly talking.

This is a the kind of savory independent film that makes Hollywood look silly for dressing up all its stories with unnecessarily big stars and exponential budgets. It's a cheap, unpolished picture, but because of the extraordinary efforts by its stars, it's captivating nonetheless.

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