They're the quietest moments in Little Boy Blue: Jimmy (Ryan Phillippe) babysitting and tucking in his young siblings Mark and Mikey (Devon Michael, Adam Burke) before turning his attentions to his girlfriend Traci (Jenny Lewis). Meanwhile, on this muggy East Texas hellhole night, their father Ray (John Savage), a drunken, impotent-by-injury Vietnam vet, is stomping all over Andy (John Doman), a guy who's come looking maybe for him in the dowdy roadhouse bar where Ray's harried wife Kate (Nastassja Kinski) serves up what looks like equal measures of booze and perspiration. Jimmy can't commit to Traci, who offers love as well as escape, for fear of leaving his family unprotected from Ray and because Ray is habitually forcing him to have sex with Kate. Soon, Ray lets loose with a KO punch: Jimmy's two young brothers are actually his sons, further wrecking Jimmy's emotions. Just about the time Sgt. Phillips (Dennis Letts) and deputy Nate (Tyrin Turner) figure out Ray murdered Andy, who shows up but Doris (Shirley Knight-as you've never seen her before), Andy's employer, now a black angel hellbent for leather, aiming to avenge a decades-ago, life-destroying score with Ray.

First-time screenwriter Michael Boston continually strains to keep the murky implausibilities from flattening his movie, which is admirably about survival, childhood, good vs. evil, innocence and corruption. He must battle details like the unlikely ages of his characters (Kate's too young, Jimmy and the boys too old) and plot points (like why the cops would allow a nascent violent nutcase like Ray to keep his gun after releasing him, and why Kate would not simply tell Jimmy, considering the forced sex and all, that she is not his mother-this is probably the cruelest act in the movie-saving Jimmy untold pain). But...with Doris' arrival, the film lopes off into high-test Southern gothic, and it doesn't really matter anymore-it becomes sorta like Tobacco Road Meets The Virgin Spring. This is also the point, as the inevitable deeds occur, that the picture's political subtext kicks in, that the Vietnam war is the root of the evil, as it ruined not only Ray's body but his mind as well. The chief plus is that Boston, who is also an actor (and takes a bit for himself here) has written some excellent characters, and under Antonio Tibaldi's astute direction, the actors are uniformly superlative, right down to the walk-ons. Even Savage makes his monster of a tyrant somewhat sympathetic.

The unusually Italian/Australian hybrid Tibaldi (who also takes a hand in the editing) is constantly inventive with his direction. He is particularly good with the two kids and expert at portraying the emotional quagmire of this family, of exploring the point where rural eccentricity becomes dangerous pathology. The film's descent into midnight mayhem adds a peculiarly American folkloric element that seems perfectly right, leading to its logically downbeat ending-everyone pretty much loses-and a terifically ironic 'happy ending' that turns out to be a dream. All in all, this is the best 1970s movie yet made in the 1990s (this is a compliment.) Little Boy Blue is a necessarily small movie combining large ideas with low-key technical credits, although it is very nicely shot by Aussie Ron Hagen (Romper Stomper) on suitably dismal locations in Texas. The excellent score, larded with some honky-tonk bar tunes, is by the ex-Police man Stewart Copeland.

--David Bartholomew