Dir. Peter O'Fallon US. 2000 104 mins.

A sentimental drama about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, A Rumor Of Angels boasts a first-rate performance from Vanessa Redgrave as an eccentric old woman who claims to have a spiritual connection with the afterlife. Redgrave and a talented cast transcend an earnest, yet uneven and cliche-ridden script that's better suited for television than the big screen. Director Peter O'Fallon (Suicide Kings), who also co-wrote the screenplay, is clearly invested in the material, but he runs into difficulty whenever the focus shifts away from Redgrave to less spiritual matters. The low-budget feature, filmed back in 2000, has finally received its theatrical release after playing the festival circuit. Box office prospects are slim: the film opened to $23,726 from seven sites during its first weekend, a screen average of $3,389.

Young James Neubauer (Trevor Morgan) is spending his summer on the coast of Maine with his laid-back Uncle Charlie (Ron Livingston); his new stepmother, Mary (Catherine McCormack), whom he resents; and his dad Nathan (Ray Liotta), who is concerned he and his son are growing apart. Haunted by the death of his mother in an automobile accident, James finds solace in his friendship with Matty Bennett (Redgrave), a crusty old dame who lives in a cottage outside of town. After a bumpy first encounter, Matty and James warm to each other and she begins to teach him about the wonders of Mozart and the Morse Code, which she maintains she uses to converse with her son who died in Vietnam. Bonded by mutual grief, they grow closer and, with Matty's help, James overcomes the trauma of his mother's death by finally remembering the events surrounding the tragic accident he survived.

When Nathan and Mary learn more about more Matty's ongoing relationship with her late son, they forbid James to see her, which creates even more tension within the family. At this point, the film goes into theatrical overdrive, as O'Fallon takes a heavy-handed approach to resolving James' resentment toward his father, who, not having completely come to terms with his own grief, has alienated his son. Liotta is a good actor, but his character is underwritten and he keeps drifting in and out of the story, so the dynamics of his relationship with James are never clear. O'Fallon also has a tendency to not let the scenes involving the father and son play full out, so they never live up to their intended emotional potential.

Fortunately, the relationship between Matty and James is fully realized. As usual, Redgrave offers a compelling portrayal of a town eccentric that in the hands of any other actress would have become an over-the-top stock character. As the emotionally bereft youth, Morgan should be congratulated for more than holding his own while working alongside a pro like Redgrave.

Pro cod: Cinetel
Int'l sales: Cinetel Films
US dist: MGM/UA Distribution
Prods: Lisa Hansen, Paul Hertzberg, Peter O'Fallon
Scr: Peter O'Fallon, Jamie Horton, James Eric, based on the book Thy Son Liveth: Messages From A Soldier to His Mother by Grace Duffie Boylan
Cinematographer: Roy Wagner
Ed: Louise Rubacky
Music: Tim Simonec
Main Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Ray Liotta, Catherine McCormack, Trevor Morgan, Ron Livingston, George Coe