'Rain' is a calm and consistent film with fine performances.

Strangely, of the five feature films New Zealand has produced for the international market in the last year, two are named Rain. It's kind of like the Canadian Football League, which used to have two teams named "Rough Riders" in spite of having only eight teams in total. (CFL fans want me to point out that one team was called "Rough Riders" and the other "Roughriders." It's a subtle distinction not well understood in Sub-Canadian North America. This, of course, has no bearing on the quality of Rain or Rain, but I keep getting letters from Canadians asking me to mention the CFL in the column, so there.)

As for Rain (this week I'll only be reviewing Rain, and not Rain. Sorry.) it's so small and well-formed that you can hardly believe it came from the same country that brought us The Lord of The Rings, Part 1: Three Freakin' Hours of God-awful Hobbits.

Rain tells the story of a New Zealand family's mid-1970s summer. They live in a beach house where 13-year-old Janey and 10-year-old Jim spend their days running up and down the shore awaiting puberty.

Meanwhile, their mother Kate is watching her youth slip away, and she's not much liking it. Used to drinking and parties and being the center of attention, she sees Janey developing into a sexual being, and thinks that soon she won't be the pretty one in the family.

This leads her into some petty behavior involving seducing a neighbor. Her husband and Janey's father, Ed, passively puts up with this as he struggles to maintain the household in the face of his wife's boozy behavior.

Ed, however, isn't simply a heroic figure in a co-dependent relationship, nor does he come to deep realizations about himself. In short, this is not a TV movie-of-the-week. Rather, he mopes, occasionally explodes, and fails to handle things very well.

But for the most part he leaves the indignation to Janey, who, at 13, is not well equipped to handle her mother's sexuality, much less her own. To even the score, she begins to behave sexually towards her mother's lover.

Technically, that would make this movie illegal in the U.S., but with John Ashcroft busy abusing the civil rights of suspected Arabs, I can't imagine anyone will make a big stink about it. Ignoring some recent blue laws, filmmaker Christine Jeffs portrays Janey as cognizant of, and in control of, her budding sexual powers. Janey comes off as irresponsible, but not stupid or manipulated.

All of this is accented by the slow pace of the New Zealand summer and a quiet soundtrack by former Crowded House frontman and musical legend Neil Finn. Well, he's a legend in New Zealand, but then again, so are Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, who I also haven't heard of. Anyway, his spacious, atmospheric folk-pop is moody without being overly manipulative, and is nicely reflected in the misty cinematography of the whimsically named John Toon.

Toon and director Jeffs create a very dreamy film that captures the feeling of a childhood memory. They're helped immeasurably in this by the acting of Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki as Janey, who gives a performance seldom seen in young actors.

Her acting is tremendously subtle, but more than strong enough to hold the entire film together. It's a rare combination of charisma and technique that few adult actors have, and if she can escape from the world of independent New Zealand films (I think she's scheduled to be in three more films called Rain next year) she could well have a shelf full of awards by the time she's a grownup.

The other performers are all also excellent at the naturalistic style of acting, never once breaking the extremely cohesive and heavy mood of the film.

Which is actually the film's only real weakness. It's so pretty and so consistent in tone that watching it is, at times, like watching ripples on water. Still, this helps make the powerful moments seem more extreme, and the ending comes on so strong that it washes away any sense of the film's previously excessive calm.

It also does a nice job of undoing the conceits of the coming-of-age movie, since no one actually comes of age in this film. Janey's character remains consistent in spite of her sexual awakening, and her mother and father do not grow and learn from their troubling summer. I found this especially refreshing, and it's something American filmmakers could take a lesson from: In order to tell a good story, it's not necessary to present good people, or even people who become good. Sometimes complicated, ordinary characters who don't quite understand their lives are richer and more aesthetically satisfying than characters who, in the course of 110 minutes, suddenly come to love and accept themselves and their screwed-up childhoods. So, you know, Ya-Ya that, America.

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