The actors in “Children on Their Birthdays” seem to have been given one instruction: Be genteel.
And so every genteel bit of dialogue from Douglas Sloan’s genteel script (based on Truman Capote’s genteel short story) is pronounced with massive, saccharine Southern gentility. I do not doubt that people in a small Alabama town just after World War II spoke like this; what I doubt is whether gentility is, in itself, enough to base a movie on.
Yet here is “Children on Their Birthdays,” a slice-of-life picture where the life is uneventful and the slice missed all the good chunks. It has several tiny bits that could have been turned into good films, but each of them is abandoned so that half-hearted attention can be paid to some other bit, which in turn is abandoned for something else, and so on.
In the idyllic post-war town of Medda, Ala., we meet Billy Bob Murphy (Joe Pichler), who is just turning 13 and who spends his summer days hanging out with his Huck Finn-ish friend Preacher (Jesse Plemons). The boys do what you’d expect: They listen to baseball games on the radio, run through fields, hatch schemes in a treehouse, and avoid doing any serious work. Billy Bob’s mother (Sheryl Lee) seems to have lost her husband in the war, and there seems to have been, at one point, a romantic connection between her and Speedy Thorne (Christopher McDonald), now the town’s auto mechanic and sheriff.
Everyone’s world gets jumbled a bit when a 13-year-old girl named Lilly Jane Bobbitt (Tania Raymonde) moves into the boarding house across the street with her mute mother (Phyllis Frelich). She’s like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, Lilly Jane is, complete with a parasol and a manner of speaking that is unfailingly polite and verbose. Billy Bob and Preacher are both taken with her — Billy Bob in his well-bred, mannerly way, and Preacher in his grunting, throw-rocks-at-girls fashion.
What happens beyond that is of little import. There’s a tiny conflict within the town (thanks to an outsider played by Tom Arnold), a tiny resolution of that conflict, and a tiny denouement. What little crises do emerge over the course of the story are handled speedily and effortlessly, as if the movie thought it would be impolite to let conflicts intrude upon the plot.
I would like to mention that the town holds a talent show at which Lilly Jane sings (well, lip-synchs) a song that sounds like an ’80s pop-inspirational ballad, a la “The Greatest Love of All.” Lilly Jane claims to have written this song herself, which means she was truly ahead of her time, back there in the late ’40s in Alabama.
First-time director Mark Medoff seems to have had little idea what point, if any, he was trying to make. Creating a snapshot of American life from yesteryear may be a worthwhile goal, but it will require far better acting than he gets from any of his subjects here. Oh, the boys are good enough, and I suppose Sheryl Lee and Christopher McDonald don’t hurt anything. But Tom Arnold — Tom Arnold, for crying out loud! — is embarrassing. And Tania Raymonde as Lilly Jane Bobbitt demonstrates why you should ask potential actors whether they can do the accent BEFORE casting them, not after. It is hideous and funny, the way she speaks; the fact that she speaks SO MUCH pushes it over the line into the realm of irritation. This young actress is good — she played Malcolm’s girlfriend on “Malcolm in the Middle” a couple times — but this was not the role for her.
Nor is this the movie for us. Its old-fashioned values and family-appropriate content are admirable, but sitting through a movie shouldn’t be a chore, and “Children on Their Birthdays” feels like 102 minutes of taking out the garbage.
C- (1 hr., 42 min.; )