Picks and Pans Review: Rachel River

updated 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Wed., June 21, 9 P.M. ET)

B

As Auntie Mame said about her childhood in upstate New York: "How bleak was my puberty." She might well have been describing this film, which tells several intertwined stories about the folks who live in Rachel River, a fictitious farm town in Minnesota. Not that bleak is bad, mind you.

The 90-minute American Playhouse presentation often makes a powerful impression, especially its exquisite imagery of barren winter landscapes—discouraging enough to give anyone an agoraphobic attack. Avro Part's beautifully sad music only intensifies those reactions.

It took director Sandy Smolan five years to get this film to the screen. It is based on short stories by Minnesota writer Carol Bly. Minnesotan Judith (Ordinary People) Guest did the gloomy script, and it plays something like Garrison Keillor without the laughs.

Among the weary townsfolk are Pamela (Eyewitness) Reed as a divorced, financially strapped mother who is hostess on a one-woman radio show; Viveca Lindfors as a dignified Norwegian farm wife whose husband is dying in a nursing home; and Craig T. Nelson as a long-haired deputy sheriff who lives all by himself in a phone-less trailer. Not exactly the Brady Bunch, huh?

The film, which played briefly last year in some movie theaters, works better on an intimate TV screen, where the characters are more accessible. Still, all the serious intentions seem forced and studied, as if to announce, "This is art." The scenes with Lindfors are dipped in sentimentality and chipperness, which breaks the film's harsh, melancholy mood. Although in the end the citizens of Rachel River don't leave much of an impact, their desolate, Arctic-like environment sure packs a wallop. Dress warmly.

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