My Antonia (1995)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Family Drama, Rural Drama  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG
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The story is so rich that only a team of true hacks could mess up Willa Cather's evocative and heartbreaking story of a young man's emotional odyssey in 1880s Nebraska. Neither distinguished nor particularly memorable, My Antonia is the kind of film that virtually defines TV movies, playing it safe even with material that could hardly rate more than a PG rating. Gone, for instance, is the novel's treatment of the neighbor family in Black Hawk who hire Antonia as a maid; the father in the film is depicted as a simple blowhard obsessed with the appearances his servants create by misbehaving in public, whereas Cather portrayed him as a sexual predator of those girls. Except for Elina Lowensohn's vibrant central performance, none of the actors evince much energy, most crucially Neil Patrick Harris in the lead. Granted, Jimmy Burden is something of a passive character, but Harris just doesn't suggest any of the emotional turmoil that Cather captured so eloquently. The strongest portrayal in the film is the plight of European immigrants and in particular the young women. As Antonia plaintively says, "Girls like me don't get chances," and although she almost blows what she thinks is her best shot, she does land on her feet--no thanks to the self-absorbed Jimmy. A longer film might have given more screen time to the liberated character of Lena Lingard, Antonia's Swedish friend and Jimmy's first real lover, to enhance this point. Victoria Riskin's script is adequate, but it's forced at times to resort to voiceover narration that spells out what adroitly composed dialogue and more forceful direction might have dramatized.