The War (1994)
This warm and magnificently photographed film shows how it was to grow up in the American south in 1970. The Simmons family, as most families surrounding them, struggles with poverty, racism and the aftereffects of the Vietnam war, in which the father fought and came back with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The children spend the beautiful summer building a huge tree-house and playing with various mechanical junk they find scattered around the neighbourhood in classical 1970s fashion. And as their father recovers from the psychological wounds of his war, the children raise their own with the rivalling motherless Lipnicki siblings next door.
The screenplay by Kathy McWorter has a lot of insight to it, but after an hour and a half of filmatic brilliance by Jon Avnet, The War ultimately has one too many lessons to teach and a bit too much message to convey. The war parable isn't subtle enough for seasoned viewers, it comes off as over-constructed, even if it is well-conceived and carried out.
The result is that Avnet isn't able to make the thought-provokingly important film he might had wanted, but he still creates a totally fascinating recapture of a time and place filled with warm naiveté, those familiar southern mannerisms, and recognizable music, clothes and colours. The joy of life, hardships and conflicts of the kids are as well portrayed here as in any coming-of-age film, and for anyone who remembers growing up, the film is a remarkable feel-good treat. The performances are remarkably good in this respect, both from local unprofessionals such as the Lipnickis (of which Lucas Black later made a name for himself) or the Lidia crew. And there are also great performances from established character actors - such as the wonderfully striking stereotypes by Christine Baranski and Raynor Scheine.
Still, it is Elijah Wood who elevates the drama from interesting to harrowingly effective through his versatile, multilayered lead performance. There is so much potency in Wood here that he feels like a juvenile version of Marlon Brando - from his emotional outbursts to his physical acting. His scenes with Costner are amongst the film's finest. Unfortunately, they are ultimately used as the basis for a finale that is a bit too contrived.