A favorite Hollywood story goes like this: The Sisters of Malibu raise a foundling and send him to Notre Dame. After he becomes a prominent film producer, he returns to the convent and asks the Mother Superior how he can repay her kindness. Gently she refuses. When he insists, she finally relents and says, "Since you put it that way, my son—I would like to direct."

Yes, in Los Angeles, everyone and his sister wants to direct. What it takes—for those who don't break into film behind the camera—is star power. It's not a new phenomenon. Mabel Normand directed Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) when she was 19. In 1948 Laurence Olivier directed his own Oscar-winning performance in Hamlet. It hasn't always worked, though. In 1955 Charles Laughton directed Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter. Hunter was a box office flop, and Laughton never directed again.

David Morse, Viggo Mortensen

The following cineography—hastily compiled and admittedly unofficial—is nonetheless vital to viewer understanding of actor Sean Penn's debut as a director and screenwriter:

1. The Bible. Cain and Abel.

2. East of Eden (1955). Cain and Abel redux, with James Dean.

3. The Hardy Boys books. The lead characters' names (Joe and Frank).

4. Some Came Running (1959). In Penn's Runner, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna's sister, reprises young Shirley MacLaine's role as the baffled bimbo.

5. The Seventh Seal (1957). Ingmar Bergman's bleak landscapes.

6. Satyricon (1969). Federico Fellini's garish grotesques.

7. Easy Rider (1969). Dennis Hopper established himself by playing a young, scruffy, unlovable outcast. In Runner the mature Hopper plays an old, scruffy, unlovable outcast.

8. Five Easy Pieces (1970). Mortensen's outlaw sensibility (and sensual drawl) essentially derives from this and all other Jack Nicholson films in which Jack doesn't wear a necktie.

9. Badlands (1973). Midnight frisking in auto headlights.

10. Helter Skelter (1976). Gallons of blood.

11. The New Centurions (1972). A pathetic phone call presages suicide.

12. The Deer Hunter (1978). Bewildered working-class Vietnam vets.

13. Twin Peaks (1990). Northern gothic characters blather primitive-wisdom nonsense.

Thus armed, you may be able to grasp the story: Mortensen plays (quite ably, as it happens) a sociopath returned from Vietnam. His brother the sheriff (Morse) chooses, unwisely, to invite him into his home. To Penn's credit, there is one note of originality here: It turns out that Mortensen's disturbed Viet vet was disturbed before he went to Vietnam. (R)

Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest

How do you handle a precocious child? Do you leave his upbringing to parents (in this case, a single parent) who can't remotely match wits with him, or do you turn him over to an educator who can nurture his mind but not necessarily his heart?

This is the delicately difficult question addressed in Tate by Foster (see story, page 80). Just 28, she directs here for the first time and also stars as the mother who can't quite comprehend just what she begat. That's little man Adam Hann-Byrd (a first-time actor straight from the New York City public-school system) who at 7 can flash through binary numbers but who also has nightmares, an incipient ulcer and a melancholy envy of the schoolmate who, as he wistfully narrates, "always gets to be kickball captain."

Foster is the doting mom, a cocktail waitress who wouldn't know a Rorschach test from a Mai Tai, but who can play the shadow game with her son when he, frightened by a dream, beckons her in the night. Wiest plays the director of a school for gifted youngsters who can open academia's doors for the boy but whose answer to his nighttime fears is a glass of water.

Tate unfolds as a sort of intellectual Stella Dallas; Foster tries desperately to hang on to the child whose mind, under Wiest's tutelage, grows galaxies apart from his mom's pedestrian notions.

Foster deals with this sensitive subject (and her own performance) with a sharp intelligence and a gentle hand. Scott (Dead Again) Frank's screenplay, though appealing, may be a little pat in its resolutions, but Foster's own clear vision carries the viewer past the bromides: She makes the film play as subtly and convincingly as a good novel. Onscreen she and Wiest make compelling antagonists as they vie for the boy's allegiance. Genius isn't everything. Foster tells us; then she makes her point dramatically, according to the dictates of her own awakening genius. (PG)

Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy

Another way of getting to the Hollywood director's chair is to have occupied such a chair for the stage. David Mamet, whose string of Broadway triumphs as a playwright include American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, now makes his third outing as a screenwriter-director (House of Games, Things Change). Homicide opens strongly in the station house with Mantegna and Macy as police detectives, Jewish and Irish, respectively, trying to cope with each nightmare day. "Do you want to know how to solve the problem of evil?" asks a man just arrested for killing his family. "No, man," Mantegna tiredly replies, " 'cause then I'd be out of a job."

The trouble for Mantegna—and the movie—comes when he is forced to choose between his badge and Zion. That just might work onstage, where the audience is expected to pause and reflect, even on implausible questions. Onscreen, where disbelief isn't easily suspended, his actions are frankly incredible. It is a commentary on the differences between stage and screen that Foster—a novice with solid grounding—works more fluently with film than the stagecrafty Mamet. (R)