It's been a long time since family melodramas ruled the roost in Hollywood, but every once in a while an old-fashioned melodrama turns up, perhaps to remind us that the likes of Susan Hayward and Lana Turner once held sway over millions of movie fans. The Glass House, a debut feature directed by Daniel Sackheim and written by Wesley Strick, is a smart, contemporary psychological thriller that echoes earlier family dramas, while inviting comparisons with more recent pictures such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, also written by Strick.

In the aftermath of an automobile crash which takes the lives of their parents, Ruby (Leelee Sobieski) and her younger brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) are shunted off to their parents' nearby acquaintances, the Glasses, who become their guardians. On the surface, Erin (Diane Lane) and Terry (Stellan Skarsg‰rd) Glass seem to be a reasonably caring couple, but teenage Ruby is somewhat skeptical about her surrogate parents, and rightly so. The Glasses are generous--perhaps too generous, in Ruby's suspicious eyes. As for impressionable young Rhett, he couldn't be happier, as the Glasses cleverly provide him with his much-desired Nintendo fixes.

With Rhett practically fawning over his new guardians, Ruby takes it on herself to monitor almost the Glasses' every move. Meanwhile, the Glasses take ominous notice of Ruby's sleuthing. It's here, too, that movie audiences are likely to take notice of up-and-coming Leelee Sobieski, who endows her character with intelligence and resolve, not in the old fashioned Nancy Drew manner, but in something entirely more contemporary.

But let's not forget the Glasses themselves, a stylish if repugnant couple brought to villainous life by Skarsg‰rd and Lane. Then there's Bruce Dern's brief turn as the Glass family's somewhat smarmy attorney. But it's Sobieski who commands our foremost attention--primarily in the scenes where she tries to put together the pieces of what her young life has been turning into.

Filmmaker Sackheim and screenwriter Strick have assembled a first-rate melodrama, one that might have played nicely in theatres as a second feature back in the early '60s--no small achievement.

--Ed Kelleher