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Even as a cautionary tale or a grief aid, the film needs more richness and variety, more jolts of recognition. There's one choice moment midway through when Beth questions her daughter Kerry (played at age 9 by Alexa Vega) about a boy she chats with at the front door. Responding to her mom's weird intensity, Kerry immediately protests that she isn't courting "stranger danger" -- after all, she's at home. Her spunky retort roused the only laugh (a rueful one) I heard in the screening room. It's a sign of life in a house and a film that sink into a state of life-in-death.

Set in a bland, comfortable suburb of Chicago, the film is an ethnic offshoot of Ordinary People (1980) -- which also centered on a suburban Chicago mother named Beth who was having problems with her son. In Ordinary People, the older brother accidentally drowned, and the mother blamed the younger son. In the freakily similar The Deep End of the Ocean, the older boy feels guilty because he let the younger one annoy him and toddle off. Like Beth in Ordinary People, Beth in The Deep End of the Ocean neglects the survivor,continued on next pagecontinued from previous page Vincent (played at age 16 by General Hospital star Jonathan Jackson). But when it comes to the lost boy, this Beth blames herself -- and it cripples her. For years she doesn't realize how closely linked she and Vincent are in psychology and temperament.

Beth refuses to go along with what she views as the rest of the family's false hope. The first Christmas after the disappearance, her expansive Italian in-laws come to celebrate. They bring presents for the absent son, and Beth denounces this sentimental gesture as cruelty. If it's obvious that she is out of control -- she has ignored Vincent and also relied on him to, say, feed baby Kerry -- the ruthlessness of her grief cuts through the coziness of wishful thinking and gives her stature. Heroine worship in movies is usually overt; in this film it's hushed, even subtle. For a movie to favor a haughty, withdrawn character over its outgoing ones is intriguing and a bit bizarre. But this emphasis doesn't go anywhere -- at least, not anywhere interesting. In the few glints of real drama, Beth senses that her family might be doomed. But the narrative is too middle-of-the-road to make the clan come tumbling down. (Mitchard takes the Cappadoras further into limbo and leaves the marriage up in the air.) The film's Beth emerges from her numbness with a sharpened awareness and uses it to try to repair the family damage.

Almost a decade later the younger son pops up, not as the Ben Cappadora they knew but as a stranger named Sam (Ryan Merriman), with a loving widowed father who didn't know the boy was kidnapped. Beth is the one who grasps the situation. She recognizes the vast inertial pull of the life the boy enjoyed between the ages of 3 and 12, and she doesn't want him to be as scarred as she is. The bitter parent must face up to the selfishness of her mourning; Pat, the sunny one, must face the blindness of his dreams. They both must work to heal the wounds they've inflicted on the now-delinquent Vincent -- who turns out to be the linchpin of a reunited family. The film plays out like a routine practice for a relay race. With sober inevitability, the baton gets passed from one character to another as Team Cappadora nears the brink of psychological health.

Ulu Grosbard's direction was all over the place in his 1995 indie Georgia. But he did incisive work 21 years ago in the blistering crime film Straight Time (featuring what is still Dustin Hoffman's best dramatic performance). Fifteen years ago he put an elegant gloss on a middle-class sob story called Falling in Love -- which is all I think he finally does with the film version of The Deep End of the Ocean. He and his screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, haven't figured out how to shoehorn in the avalanche of perceptions about otherwise unrecorded middle-class life that make the book optimum reading for planes, trains, buses or an herbal bath. They do an assiduous job of cutting and weaving, but what they come up with is threadbare. Pat no longer has a heart condition; Beth no longer has a lover. Hints of a financial squeeze fly by (Beth arguing she can write off a meal, Pat urging her to take pictures again to keep Vincent in sneakers). Whoopi Goldberg's Chicago cop Candy doesn't have a chance to win us over as Beth's unexpected friend. She's simply that obligatory contemporary-film figure -- the warm and wise homosexual.

Even on its own terms, the movie lacks follow-through. Candy tells Beth that Vincent does love his mother: the cop knows by the way he looks at her. I doubt the audience would agree. As Vincent, Jackson sets off a James Dean glare that could mean he wants to wring her neck.

There's a not-so-hidden attraction to melodramatic soap operas: They demonstrate a universe of risks and impulses making hash of lives committed to security and order. In the book, Mitchard brings that out into the open -- she describes Beth falling for Pat precisely because he made her feel safe. But the movie neither creates a homey world that lives and breathes nor makes it wrenching when that world is breached. The superficial darkness of the movie would not survive the glare of a nightlight.

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