One almost hesitates to bestow upon "Inventing the Abbotts" the praise it deserves for fear of engendering wrong expectations. The appeal of this beautifully textured and strongly felt film is that it's an anti-blockbuster. Although it's set in 1957, it treats the period in refreshingly clear-eyed fashion. There's no XTC nostalgia in it, no sentimentalizing, no hindsight. It's so true to its period that it plays like a film made in 1957.
Intimate in focus and structure, it's built on beautifully observed accretions of emotion and behavioral detail. And its superbly gauged story of two poor teen-age brothers and their involvement with the daughters of the richest family in their small town focuses on class differences in ways few American films acknowledge.
In short, director Pat O'Connor has followed up his satisfying "Circle of Friends" with another film as small in scale, but also as hugely rewarding, with fine, urgent performances from his cast.
The Holt brothers and their widowed schoolteacher mother (Kathy Baker) know the well-to-do Abbotts only from afar. The senior Holt was partners with Will Patton's Lloyd Abbott. The latter bought a file-drawer patent Holt held, then became a millionaire while the Holts stayed poor.
Even more damning, it was rumored that the widow Holt had an affair with Lloyd Abbott (the film is also about the imprisonment of women in 1950s small-town America). This expresses itself in the sexual rebellion of one Abbott daughter -- Jennifer Connolly's Eleanor -- and the distancing of another -- Liv Tyler's Pamela -- from her family.
Meanwhile, Billy Crudup's an embittered graduating senior who'll going to Penn. He initiates an affair with Eleanor Abbott as much from anger and revenge as from lust. The more innocent younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix) wants only to clear the town's social hurdles.
Of all the characters, Baker's loving, dignified, melancholy mom and Tyler's slightly awkward but emotionally wise woman-in-the-making are the standouts.
Although modest in scale, the societal and emotional territory of "Inventing the Abbotts" is unerringly staked out.
'Inventing the Abbotts'
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Kathy Baker, Liv Tyler
Directed by Pat O'Connor
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 4/05/97