Heavy, deep-pan passion on a light and wry base

FILM
MEET Victor. The hero of James Mangold's outstanding debut, Heavy (15), is not the sort of fellow you come across that often at the movies - at least, not centre-screen. Obese, gauche, inarticulate, timid, Victor (played with consummate empathy by Pruitt Taylor Vince) wanders through the kitchen of the diner he works in, padding around like a wounded elephant. The first few times we see him, he is stealing furtive glances at a beautiful, college- drop-out waitress, Callie (Liv Tyler), while making a pizza - struggling simultaneously with his libido and a piece of dough. Victor at first seems to have been named out of irony or bathos. But it is his quiet values that triumph. The sort of fat, ugly figure so often disfranchised by the movies, neglected or mocked, is here loved and lionised.

Victor is the son of the equally rotund Dolly (Shelley Winters), owner of the pizza joint in upstate New York. We get to know this establishment as we might by hanging around there for a week or two: the early scenes are all observation, as shards of this down-at-heel world piece themselves together. Soon the tensions of the place are breaking out like cracks in the wallpaper. Dolly has taken on the pretty new waitress in order to make a match for her son. The other waitress, Dolores (Deborah Harry, embracing frowzy middle-age), is deeply envious. Someone has written on the ladies'-room mirror the word "slut". Mangold, taking his time with an ambling rhythm, draws us into this quartet's anguished lives. We learn of Dolly's encroaching illness; Victor's forlorn fantasies; Callie's boyfriend troubles. The characters become sharper and more sympathetic.

None more so than Victor. Early on he is a figure of fun or pity: posing for Callie's camera with weary self-contempt when she takes snapshots in the kitchen; narrowing his eyes in incipient obsession when he discovers some photographs of Callie herself, and filching one to put on his fridge; going on a diet after struggling into his jeans. He fantasises about saving Callie from drowning. We see that he has imagined a triangular rock into the shape of his beloved - an image of how a lover will distort the whole world into his sweetheart's likeness. But his awkwardness is tenderly observed: the way he is forever reaching the point of approaching her, before being knocked aside by some casual blow of fate - a Prufrock in the pantry. His inarticulacy is wonderfully expressive, speaking of his gentleness and confusion. And when he asserts himself, to criticise Dolores for bullying Callie, he routs her with his wryness: "You don't have to be nice; just be nicer."

Liv Tyler is the 19-year-old daughter of Aerosmith vocalist Steve Tyler, and already a considerable actress (she has recently played the lead in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty). She has long limbs and pouting, Lolita- ish lips. Early on, she looks disaffected, as though she longed to be somewhere - anywhere - else. Yet Callie has a sensitivity towards her surroundings, and comes to feel affection towards her colleagues. She senses Victor's decency, and his unfulfillable yearning. In a moving finale, she quits the diner, and says good-bye to Victor, her pretty face quivering with emotion, while her boyfriend waits impatiently. Tyler captures wonderfully the girl's understanding that she has a world to go to beyond all this, and that Victor does not.

Writer-director James Mangold rarely puts a foot wrong. His eyes and ears are open to oddity. Personal problem phone-ins on the radio trickle through the film like a dismal drizzle. In a bizarre scene in which Victor goes to a conference for chefs, Mangold's disdainful eye alights on a row of greasy sausages rotating obscenely on a grill. Elsewhere a noticeboard of the tariff lists "pastrami - when available". Mangold shows the precision and assurance of a true director.

An award-winner at this year's Sundance Festival, Heavy confirms the pattern I wrote about in last week's yearly arts round-up in the Sunday Review, joining independent films such as Before Sunrise and Spanking the Monkey as among the most accomplished and challenging American movies of 1995. In Victor it gives us an unprepossessing hero, who comes to enchant us, without making him grotesque or especially heroic. He is simply ordinary, in a way that few people are in movies these days.

Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (U) is also an award-winner. In fact, this Iranian movie arrives here festooned with prizes from film festivals around the world. The story is simple, to the point of being slight. On the eve of the Iranian New Year, a seven-year-old girl begs her mother for a handsome new goldfish. After the mother acquiesces, the girl loses the banknote with which she was to buy the fish. Her search for the note, in tandem with her brother, brings her into contact with a number of strangers, including an Afghan refugee. The movie is modestly shot, though with elegant use of space and composition, and boasts a sturdily querulous performance from the little girl (Aida Mohammadkhani). But it is hard to see what the fuss is about.

It may be the desire of critics and audiences to return to a kind of cinematic innocence. Like Babe, this is a sweet-tempered, well-crafted little film, whose fable you expect to resonate beyond the cinema. Yet somehow it doesn't. Unlike Animal Farm, what you see here is what you get, unless you want to read into the story a mild, Kilplingesque moral about striving and succeeding, or fulfilment leading only to further desire. Perhaps credit is also being given to an Iranian film simply for being there. In fact, the movie feels as if it has been emasculated by the necessity not to offend, a child's fable being the least likely form to ruffle the authorities. It is a victim of censorship rather than an act of defiance.

At its best, The White Balloon shows us an unfamiliar, everyday Iran: its shops and its streets; hawkers conning passers-by, except using snakes rather than cards; the hubbub of voices and the din of traffic with which the movie starts. It does not make for a great cinematic experience, and even at 85 minutes is not without its longueurs. But we do get to see, for once, the fundamentals of the country - instead of just its fundamentalism.

Cinema details: Review, page 50.

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