Picks and Pans Review: Heart Like a Wheel

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

A car races up and down a back road somewhere in upstate New York. The driver giggles happily as he hoists his young daughter up onto his lap and lets her take the wheel. That's the enticing beginning of a film that's one of the best of the year. (It was released in the spring in selected regions and went into box-office oblivion but has been recycled with a new ad campaign and a New York Film Festival showing.) The little girl is portraying Shirley Muldowney, who in real life has gone on to become a three-time winner of the National Hot Rod Association Championship. She's the only driver, male or female, to win the title more than once. That she had to triumph not only against other drivers but against the onus of being one of the few women in drag racing is the dramatic core of this movie. Muldowney is played by Bonnie Bedelia, an actress who hasn't made a feature movie since 1978's The Big Fix but is known for such TV films as Salem's Lot. Married young to a local boy who works in a gas station, Muldowney quickly establishes herself as the fastest thing on four wheels, turns a weekend hobby into a profession—and loses her husband along the way. On the drag-racing circuit, Muldowney takes up with another racer, Connie Kalitta—played by Beau Bridges—who becomes her chief mechanic and lover, although his philandering eventually drives them apart. Director Jonathan Kaplan, whose last effort was Over the Edge (he also directed White Line Fever in 1975), has wisely kept this movie from being pit-bound. The racetrack scene is energetically depicted, but he's really after the story of how a woman—or anyone, for that matter—manages to overcome huge odds to achieve what she wants. In that sense, this is certainly an all-American success story. Bedelia's performance is a deftly shaded one: She is soft when she should be (especially in the domestic scenes with her young son, John) and steely when she finds she is going to have to go it alone. Leo Rossi as her husband is sympathetic, and Bridges provides a reminder that brother Jeff is not the only member of the family who can act. This is a rare auto-racing film that has a human heart at its center, not just a carburetor. (PG)

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