Mumbo Gumbo

Eve's Bayou bogs down in Southern-fried cliches, but it don't matter

For some reason, the gifted actress Kasi Lemmons--she played Jodie Foster's roommate in The Silence of the Lambs and the interviewer in Fear of a Black Hat--hasn't become a star. So she's become a filmmaker instead. Her first feature as writer/director is the coming-of-age story Eve's Bayou. Set among the Creole bourgeoisie in Louisiana of the 1960s, it's a messy but enjoyable picture, and despite some amateurish moments, Lemmons offers her large cast what Hollywood hasn't offered her--the chance to shine in front of the camera.

Probably the best of numerous reasons to see the film is the performance of the hell-raising, delightfully facile newcomer Jurnee Smollett as the 10-year-old Eve, through whose eyes the story is seen. Smollett is a rarity--the child actress who is truly pleasurable company, rather than merely tolerable. She performs everything from grief to joy to fury, and by the end of the film she has, well, come of age. It's a remarkable debut.

Eve's father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is a smiling, prosperous doctor so popular with the ladies in his small bayou practice that they seem to go out of their way to get sick. His philandering ways have put distance between Louis and his ravishing wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield of the inhumanly regal forehead), but Louis can take the heat. He's cheerful and confident, while Roz is growing plaintive and panicky. The three kids--Eve, her younger brother Poe (Jake Smollett) and her older, daddy's-girl sister Cisely (Meagan Good)--are of course siding with the charming father over the sad, sophisticated mother.

Louis' febrile sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) is a childless voodoo witch with an apparent black-widow curse on her. All three of her husbands--Branford Marsalis is the most recent--have met bad ends. Lemmons isn't coy about the supernatural side of the her story; when Mozelle advises Roz to keep the kids inside the house all summer over her vision of a child getting hit by a bus, we're given no doubt that the advice is sound.

This intertwines all and more into what Eve, as grown-up narrator, calls "a rich tapestry." The assertion is true enough, if immodest. Lemmons, with help of Amy Vincent's lush cinematography, shows a real visual flair, and she has a gift for clever dramatic flourishes, like a flashback played out behind the storyteller in a mirror, or the moment when Mozelle notices a secret passed by gesture between her nieces.

The flaw in Eve's Bayou is that Lemmons lets the tapestry get a little too praline-rich at times. The overheated Southern Gothic dialogue stumbles into sophomore play writing-class poetry here and there: "Let's eat pomegranates 'til our hands are so red all we can think about is getting rid of that juice," Mozelle suggests to her sister-in-law at one point. Nah, let's do something else, I thought.

And the narrative meanders, as if Lemmons wasn't sure where she was going. She is, and as it turns out, she's thought up a strong finale and a good final twist. But she loses our confidence a time or two getting to these payoffs.

Yet even when Lemmons pushes too hard or fumbles some effect she's trying for, she doesn't let down her cast. Vondie Curtis Hall never quite clicks as Mozelle's new lover, and as a voodoo crone, Diahann Carroll looks a bit too Max Factor'd. But every other member of the cast comes off just like he or she is supposed to.

This bodes well for Lemmons--a good touch with actors may be the least flashy way for a director to shine, but it may also be the most valuable.

 
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