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PLACES IN THE HEART. Directed and written by Robert Benton; produced by Arlene Donovan for Tri-Star. Starring Sally Field, Danny Glover, Lindsey Crouse, and Ed Harris. Rated PG.

****

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For all we hear about the "good old days," we really know they weren't all good. Places in the Heart praises the good from those times (the 1930's). But it's anti-nostalgic as well, showing the real agonies of Depression-era life and the horrors of bigotry and racial hatred.

Taken as a whole, it is a thoughtful reflection on memories of writer/director Benton's childhood and family history. Benton is a fourth generation son of Waxahachie, Texas, where the movie was filmed.

Edna (Field) is an ordinary housewife thrust into hard times as she suddenly becomes a widow. She is totally unequipped to function without her husband. Not only does she not know how to make out a check, she doesn't even know how to spank her son when he's caught smoking in school. Her husband had always handled such matters.

But Edna has reserves of courage and stubbornness to call upon. With the help of Moses, a knowledgeable hired hand (Glover) she manages to plant, harvest and market a cotton crop.

That's basically the story of Places in the Heart, which has one of the simplest plot lines in movie history. As a result its pace is a little slow, by usual Hollywood standards. But there is plenty to look at along the way, so it's rarely boring. There is also a subplot involving Edna's sister (Crouse) and her unfaithful husband (Harris). This story doesn't seem to tie in very well with Edna's until the end, but it does give us a chance to observe the activities of less hard-pressed townsfolk.

And observations of a time past is more important here than the story anyway. The sets, costumes and music all blend to create a little window on small town Texas, 50 years ago. The pleasure of this benign voyeurism, plus the all-around excellent acting by the fine cast (more than one Oscar nomination here for sure) make Places in the Heart well worth seeing.

Much as I liked the movie, however, I found it disturbing that the darker side of life, morally speaking, was more or less taken for granted. I'm referring mostly to the racial attitudes. But even the greed of the white cotton merchant and banker are seen as obstacles to work around rather than to protest.

So, carefully made and well-acted as it is, it's ultimately unsettling as well. Perhaps that's because memories can be unsettling, especially if they're true to what really happened, including the bitter with the sweet.

October 10, 1984

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