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Sisters Song

Georgia gets the lyrics right, but it's still out of tune

If it had been made 50 years ago, when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ruled Hollywood, it's likely that Georgia would be better than it is. That's not because Davis or Crawford were necessarily better actresses than Georgia stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, but because Davis, Crawford and their screenwriters and directors knew exactly what they were after. They had created (or acceded to) a genre known as women's movies, and if that sometimes meant formula films, it also meant a structure that allowed filmmakers to focus on character and relationships without getting lost.

Unfortunately, the genre of women's movies has died, and one result of that demise is that films such as Georgia lose part of the strength of their story line in their makers' struggle to find a form.

The filmmakers -- star and producer Leigh; scriptwriter, producer and Leigh's mother, Barbara Turner; and director and producer Ulu Grosbard -- do deserve credit for avoiding certain cliches. Although addiction and pop music are central elements, Georgia does not come off as a drug movie or a music movie. Instead, it's about the complex, passionate relationship between two sisters and how each sister is profoundly influenced by the other. The problem is that the film doesn't embrace this relationship. We're given a lot of sex and drugs and rock and roll before the relationship is revealed, and even after the film gets around to explaining the dynamic between the sisters, the story too often backs off from the mushy stuff. When the women start to become intimate, we get loud music or withdrawal or some other recognizable but unnecessary material. It's as if the filmmakers were worried that an audience wouldn't sit through too many unconventional scenes.

They should have had the strength of their convictions. But even without that, Georgia still offers much. The two sisters in this sometimes cluttered and confusing setting are Sadie (Leigh) and Georgia (Winningham). One sings folk music and is loved by her fans; that sister is Georgia, and she's not the central character. The star of this show is Sadie, a would-be punk star who can't sing, can't sit still, can't stay away from drugs and can't take care of herself.

The first part of the movie is all about Sadie, and only when her adventures as a slacker/loser become tedious do we get to Georgia. Then we learn that Sadie's passion for singing comes from her love and admiration for her older sister. She wants to share Georgia's gift.

This is both a basic and an astonishing thing. Modern cinema doesn't have many women moved by their admiration for other women, but admiration, not envy, is what moves Sadie. She doesn't resent her sister, doesn't want to take anything from her. That's what she says, and what she says is convincing.

Leigh (who may or may not be able to sing in real life) makes Sadie an awful singer, but a mesmerizing personality. Every second of Sadie's gutsy, wrong-headed time on-stage is fascinating. While her flat and toneless singing is painful, Leigh does something that few actresses (and no singers) have done in performance scenes -- she acts. When Sadie is on-stage, every thought in her head is clear. Leigh presents the pride and fear a performer has, the minor technical concerns and, most of all, Sadie's endless desire to share the glory of music. At one terrible, frightening concert, a folk festival starring the wildly famous Georgia, Sadie bounds out like she's at Lollapalooza. The Birkenstocked audience gapes at the skinny apparition on-stage, and Sadie, full of joy and idiotically construing their silence as respect, sings Van Morrison's "Take Me Back." (Leigh did the eight-and-a-half minute song in one take, which is insane by filmmaking standards. But the tension built up over those eight and a half minutes adds to the power of the scene.) As the folkies look on in stunned silence, Georgia comes to Sadie's rescue.

As it turns out, if Georgia could trade voices with Sadie, she would. Sadie has no boundaries; she is, figuratively and literally, willing to jump into anyone's lap. Sadie's puppyish generosity (and childlike selfishness) fascinates Georgia, who is aloof and solitary by nature. (Mare Winningham's small, tight smiles convey lifetimes of loneliness.) Their differences are not balanced -- each has what the other wants -- but life is rarely tidy, and this is a sophisticated story where everything does not come out even.

If there were less time in Seattle's grunge clubs, where Sadie makes her futile stab at stardom, and more time with the two sisters, this movie would have been something. As it is, we are left to fill in too many blanks, especially where Georgia is concerned. Her pleasure in songwriting and her comfort in her financial success are made clear. And it's also clear that she considers her fans alarming but inescapable. What isn't clear is her relationship with her husband and children. There are allusions to the notion that Georgia considers her family a gift she didn't deserve and can't quite care for. Allusions, though, are all we get; a full emotional portrait is missing.

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