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FIGHTING THE BAD FIGHT

Set a pack of Yankee filmmakers down amid the weeping willows and sultry heat of rural Mississippi and there's no telling what they'll come up with. In the case of The War, it's a movie about poverty. And the relentless tug of family love. And coming of age. And post-traumatic stress syndrome. And death. And hope.

In fact, if writer Kathy McWorter had crammed one more Big Issue into her screenplay, the picture might have collapsed under the sheer weight of Meaning. As it is, director Jon Avnet, Kevin Costner and a struggling cast of children reel under all these competing themes, and the movie bogs down like an old car in the mud--a pseudo-tragedy with a couple of quasi-fables for wheels.

Costner, complete with a newly installed Southern drawl, portrays a Vietnam vet who returns home in 1970 with recurring nightmares and dirt-poor prospects for the future. His wife (Mare Winningham) works two jobs, but he can't find one. The county has condemned his house. He can't sleep. In fact, his role in life seems to be imparting gentle wisdom to his kids (Elijah Wood and newcomer Lexi Randall). He does this with the manufactured sincerity of a backwoods preacher. But give Costner credit: He tries.

Meanwhile, the plucky, too-good-to-be-true children are building a highly allegorical tree house, fighting off a mean-spirited family of urchins even poorer and dirtier than they are and saying all kinds of uplifting things about race and friendship to their redneck Barbie doll of a teacher.

All this is meant to be a rich tapestry of the South (which Avnet's visited before--with the hit Fried Green Tomatoes), but it comes off more like a crazy quilt. McWorter pours the local pathos and humor on like molasses, and The War's many messages about overcoming life's trials get all sticky.

Wood stands out among the children because he's had some seasoning in The Good Son and North, but the remaining dozen or so kids all look and sound ill at ease--even as they're daring each other into high dives at the quarry and bickering over the usual boy-versus-girl issues. Little Stu and Lidia are bound to grow up some by the end, but the process is painfully synthetic.

The final battle for the tree house is meant to echo Daddy's Vietnam traumas (and America's, wouldn't you know), but it can't carry the weight: Instead, it's McWorter's worst miscalculation.

"Our children still believe in miracles," the beleaguered Costner tells his beleaguered wife. Maybe so, but no miracle can save The War from soap-opera bathos.

 
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