"Guinevere" is a perceptive story of self-discovery, starring the supremely natural Sarah Polley ("Go," "The Sweet Hereafter") as an unmolded, insecure, 20-year-old beauty whose complex, turbulent, sexual and artistic apprentice with a much older man (Stephen Rea) uncages her creative side and her confidence, long suppressed by her dysfunctional, passionless family.
Taking the initiative for the first time in her life, Harper (Polley) abandons her familial tradition of studying law at Harvard after being tenderly seduced by a photographer at a wedding, who recognizes potential in her that no one else has ever seen.
Connie (Rea) takes Harper under his wing, offering her a home in his studio loft in exchange for nothing more -- or so he says -- than her commitment to exploring the artist within under his tutelage.
But Harper soon finds -- as she and Connie consummate a more intimate relationship -- that this kind of mentorship is habitual for him. She meets Billie (Gina Gershon), a painter who was one of Connie's previous student lovers, who tells Harper of a string of susceptible young women like herself who he has influenced, educated, adored and ultimately disappointed.
Written and directed by Audrey Wells, who wrote "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," this picture is intelligent and honest in its exploration of a relationship that is not traditionally romantic and does not have any future, but is nonetheless something that helps Harper grow. It even argues that a young woman with few bearings can blossom in such a May-September romance if she falls in with the right man and keeps her heart in check.
Whether or not a ragged, homely, sad sack alcoholic with a knack for attaching himself to insecure girls can be the right man for such a learning experience is one of the questions "Guinevere" (the nickname Connie gives all his young lovers) explores. Harper eventually finds herself -- just as Billie had warned -- in the position of supporting the manipulative (if well-intentioned) Connie instead of the other way around.
The enormous age gap -- Connie is in his 50s -- invariably ignored in Hollywood movies where young hotties are cast opposite sexy dinosaurs (e.g. "Entrapment") is integral to the story here and it leads to the movie's most provocative scene in which Harper's mother -- played with pursed lips and embittered, resentful scorn by an astounding, Oscar-worthy Jean Smart ("Designing Women") -- confronts Connie about his addictions to booze and barely legal lovers. It's a scene that could easily have been one big cliche, but its flawlessly written and acted as she nails him with a single word and topples his carefully maintained self-delusions. It's a shocking moment.
"Guinevere" flails around a bit in the second half. Wells seems prone to forcing her actors out of character from time to time without realizing it, and she passes on a perfect opportunity to roll the credits, opting instead to tack on a laughable closing fantasy sequence that doesn't fit the film in any way, shape or form.
But by that point such mistakes, while disappointing, are trifling. That scene alone prevents the movie from being extraordinary, but it can't erase the frank, ardent story telling, the affection the characters inspire and the great, great performances.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th November 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $614.2 thousand
Distributed by: Miramax
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Millennium Films, Bandeira Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Audrey Wells
Starring: Sarah Polley as Harper Sloane, Stephen Rea as Connie Fitzpatrick, Jean Smart as Deborah Sloane, Gina Gershon as Billie, Paul Dooley as Walter, Carrie Preston as Patty, Tracy Letts as Zack, Emily Procter as Susan Sloane