This mystery clearly intrigues writer-director Anne DeSalvo, who explores it with rare grace and an abundance of rich characterization in her debut feature, The Amati Girls. Centered upon a gaggle of four adult sisters, the movie presents a lively discourse upon love and life that would kill you quicker than a pit viper, if it weren't backed up by a spry script and a top-notch cast. It's bold enough that DeSalvo has taken the staples of a Lifetime television movie (women, problems, talking . . . strychnine, anyone?) and raised her production above pabulum. It's just plain classy that she does it without resorting to soggy melodrama, plastic sassiness, or cheap tears.
Once we've swooped around the statue of William Penn, in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, we come to rest (or rather unrest) at the busy dinner table shared by these sisters and their intertwining families. Chief among them is the aptly named Grace (Mercedes Ruehl), who lives under the pressure of her thick, bullying husband, Joe (Paul Sorvino), as well as her recently widowed mother, Dolly (Cloris Leachman). As Grace is repeatedly reminded by her unhappily married sister Christine (Sean Young) and deliriously single sister Denise (Dinah Manoff), she is in grave danger of becoming her mother, sacrificing everything for family until there's no life left to live. Even Dolly's zesty siblings, Splendora (Lee Grant) and Loretta (Edith Fields), detect the premature surrender at hand, when they're not too busy battling over the relative merits of Bennett vs. Sinatra, the latter of whom is revered as a saint.
Saints are key to these families, especially to the youngest of the sisters, the equally aptly named Dolores (Lily Knight), who maintains an upward countenance despite the sorrowful fate of being in her mother's womb during a nasty fall, which has rendered her forever childlike. Christine, who possibly caused her mother to trip, now shoulders the guilt for her sister's condition, in addition to struggling with her emotionally aloof, workaholic husband, Paul (Jamey Sheridan). Throughout, it's Grace who fights for balance, introducing Dolores to the saints while juggling her uppity sons and her own husband, who couldn't find his butt with both hands.
Rather than laying out yet another exposé about deranged and neurotic Middle Americans, DeSalvo goes easy on her characters, which may be jarring for some. Nobody here is on junk, nobody's packing, and -- given the Catholic overtones of the project -- there isn't even an unwanted pregnancy to sort out. Fortunately, the secular Catholicism on display here represents a hopefulness within a terribly tarnished regime. These Amati girls are regular people. They didn't invent their religion; they're just trying to work with it.
To DeSalvo's credit, it's actually stunning how much we experience with these people in a breezy 91 minutes. Entire films could be based around each sister's plight: Denise's starry-eyed self-deception in the face of true love (as a stern and serious Mark Harmon observes her "following one rainbow after another"); Grace's dutiful sadness as she assists her death-obsessed mother, shopping for a casket to match her ensemble; Dolores's lonely, frenzied desire to find herself a "top"; and, perhaps most poignantly, the hopes -- dashed and rebuilt -- of Christine and her young daughter. A dance recital in which steadfast fathers attend and lift their daughters adds much mirth to the piece, as well as much poignancy.
DeSalvo's movie definitely wears its cultural credos on its sleeve -- divorce, for example, is cause for collective browbeating, as is chasing one's whimsical dreams -- but it also exudes a warmth that's far from stuffy. Whether the actresses are bickering, with aplomb, about whether they're living in "Sicily in 1525," or Sorvino's extremely average Joe is picking on Denise's boyfriend, Lawrence, the dialogue rings with funny truths. Amid all the requisite forgivenesses and reconciliations, there's even a deliciously dark sense of irony afoot.
It remains to be seen where DeSalvo's career as a director will take her. What is certain is that her work as an off-Broadway actress has given her the tools to lead a strong ensemble. It would probably be impossible to pair Leachman and Ruehl as mother and daughter, and come away with no sparks, but DeSalvo adds the extra tinder -- the transference of a self-defeating worldview -- that both brings them to life and bars them from it. She also guides Sean Young in turning in her most subtly expressive performance to date, an ethereal beauty with her feet stuck in the clay.