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by: James Berardinelli

The final few months of 1999 have seen a flurry of wonderful films reaching theaters - a concentrated heaven for movie-goers the likes of which has not been seen in years (and certainly not since I started reviewing). One of the best and brightest of these is Lasse Hallström's The Cider House Rules. Backed by Miramax money, the director of My Life As a Dog has crafted a beautiful, emotionally resonant motion picture. The script by John Irving is based on his novel of the same name (Irving, incidentally, also has a cameo in the film as a station master near the end). Unlike last year's Simon Birch or the other Irving book-to-movie translations, this picture stays reasonably true to its written inspiration and doesn't veer off into the territory of unbearable melodrama.

Most of the story transpires during the mid-1940s in an America that has added its strength to the Allied forces. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is ineligible to join the military because of a bad heart. He has spent his entire life at an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine as the special project of Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), who sees great promise in the boy and imparts valuable medical knowledge to him. By the time he has reached adulthood, Homer is as good a doctor as Larch, albeit without a degree. There is also a moral divide between them: Larch will perform abortions (even though they're illegal), but Homer will not. Life changes for Homer with the arrival of Air Force officer Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron). She's at the orphanage for an abortion, and, after a brief stay, she is ready to go home. Homer chooses this moment to hitch a ride with them out of St. Clouds so he can see the world and establish a life for himself. That life eventually includes picking apples at a remote orchard and falling in love with Candy while her beau is off flying missions against Japan. Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, Dr. Larch finds his hopes continually dimming that Homer will one day return.

The Cider House Rules does everything right - there are no obvious missteps. Character development is strong. The plot moves at a perfect pace - not so slow that audiences will lose interest, but not so fast that the narrative begins to break down. There are a few unexpected turns, but nothing catastrophic or difficult to swallow, and the movie steers clear of overt manipulation. Emotions generated by this picture (and there are many) seem genuine, not as if the director is forcing us to feel something. The ending is satisfying without being too sentimental. Rachel Portman's score strikes all of the right notes - it is powerful without going over-the-top. And Oliver Stapleton's cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking.

The impetus behind The Cider House Rules is Homer's search to find himself. During his time at St. Clouds, the course of his life has been mapped by the expectations of others. He is a big brother to the other orphans and a helper to Dr. Larch, but, trapped within such an insular community, he has never had the opportunity to unlock the real Homer Wells. The arrival of Wally and Candy opens a door to the outside, and Homer rushes through it. Only after he has discovered himself can he chart his future.

The movie is also about the relationships between parents and children. Nearly everyone in the film fills the role of a child, a parent, or, in one case, both. Of course, this is the cycle of human life - children grow up to become parents, so Hallström and Irving are merely illustrating this truth. Dr. Larch is the ultimate father (despite his assertion that he is the "caregiver to many [and] father to none"), and the orphans are the ultimate children. There's Mr. Rose and his daughter, and Wally and his mother. Homer is the lone character who transitions from one role to the other. He leaves St. Clouds as a boy and retur


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