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Sensitive, intimate, and offbeat, Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World proves, once again, that the only American movies worth seeing these days are independent productions. Set in Texas in the mid-’30s, this unsensational, fact-based chronicle of the relationship between Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the Barbarian and other pulp fictions, and Novalyne Price, a young school teacher with literary ambitions, is unlikely to pack theaters or snag much media attention. But its delicacy and thoughtfulness make it more nourishing than Hollywood’s hollow blockbusters, and Renee Zellweger’s superb performance as Novalyne should be required viewing for every aspiring actor.

On a Spring afternoon in Brownwood, Texas, Novalyne’s beau, Clyde Smith (Benjamin Mouton), introduces her to Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), a reclusive, socially inept young man who identifies himself as “the greatest pulp fiction writer in the whole wide world.” In spite of his clumsiness and eccentricity, Novalyne becomes fascinated by Howard and the violent, elemental world of the “yarns” he creates. Something of a nonconformist herself—she shocks friends by unashamedly uttering “damn” on Sunday—she’s drawn to the writer, though troubled by his mood swings and excessive attachment to his ailing mother (Ann Wedgeworth). Their relationship, fueled by conversations about literature and clouded by spats concerning Howard’s anti-social behavior, builds to a passionate kiss. Unable to deal with his growing attachment to Novalyne, Howard withdraws, asserting his independence and determination never to marry. In frustration, she begins dating one of Howard’s friends, which further agitates the unstable writer. A final encounter, two years after their initial meeting, is overshadowed by Novalyne’s revelation that she is leaving Texas to study for a master’s degree in Education at Louisiana State University. The pair vow lifelong friendship, a pledge shattered by several devastating events shortly after Novalyne’s departure.

Moviegoers in search of a pulse-pounding narrative are likely to find The Whole Wide World soporific. Its “action” consists of little more than a series of conversations that take place on front porches, in automobiles, and during moonlight strolls. Director Ireland and scripter Michael Scott Myers—both making their feature debuts in these capacities—are concerned with delineating character and examining the interaction of two forceful personalities.

D’Onofrio, who also co-produced the film, has the showier role. Since his debut a decade ago as the unbalanced Vietnam War recruit in Full Metal Jacket, the chameleonlike actor has given a string of vivid performances in projects as varied as Mystic Pizza, The Player, Ed Wood, and Stuart Saves His Family. With his hunched shoulders and loping walk, D’Onofrio has devised physical means to externalize Howard’s inner tensions, but the role is all peaks and valleys, bursts of manic energy (shadowboxing outside Novalyne’s school, slashing a field of weeds with a sword) alternating with passages of tenderness and vulnerability. These bold juxtapositions—and others, like the barbaric fantasy world in which he unleashes his frustrations contrasted with his meek, Oedipal attachment to his overprotective mother—yield a flamboyant if somewhat predictable performance. Once we understand what makes Howard tick—which takes no more than a half-hour—we come to anticipate his mercurial outbursts and remorseful attempts to atone for his boorish conduct.

Zellweger’s character inhabits a much narrower range of emotions, but her expressive resourcefulness makes Novalyne the film’s centerpiece. Cementing her breakthrough appearance in Jerry Maguire, she establishes herself as the most accomplished new actress in American movies. Unlike Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and other faces-of-the-month whose careers soar after a fluke hit and then wither into a series of embarrassments, Zellweger is clearly here to stay. Although she’s quite attractive—imagine the pouty-lipped Gloria Grahame crossed with the hoyden spunkiness of young Shirley MacLaine—looks are the least she has to offer. Her Novalyne is feisty and free-spirited, yet grounded by a core of common sense and self-respect. She’s attracted to the alienated, borderline psychopathic Howard—his fierceness and individualism connect with her own determination to make something special of her life—but she’s too stable to be caught in his private maelstrom. Zellweger puts a fresh, unexpected spin on every line of dialogue, articulating the emotional complexities of a woman in the process of coming to know herself. Acting of such richness allows her to transcend what for most performers would be a damaging physical liability: narrow, slitted eyes. (Catherine Deneuve long ago observed that, more than any other factor, a successful movie career depends on how well an actor’s eyes reflect light.) Zellweger’s light comes from within and illuminates the screen with empathy and intelligence.

The rest of the cast has little to work with. The usually robust Wedgeworth looks convincingly frail, but her role is largely functional and underwritten. Erstwhile musical comedy baritone Harve Presnell has one brief, vivid scene as Howard’s perplexed physician-father, but otherwise hovers in the background. Mouton is similarly limited to one sequence, but his presence in the cast has intriguing autobiographical resonance. A former high-school student of the real-life Novalyne Price Ellis, he helped her research One Who Walked Alone, the 1985 memoir on which the film is based, prodded Myers (another Ellis pupil) into writing the screenplay, and brought Myers’ script to Ireland’s attention. Myers’ narrative could be more briskly paced—watching the film requires some patience—but apart from a few verbal anachronisms, his dialogue is taut and vibrant. (I doubt that literate people in the ’30s used bureaucratic neologisms like “finalize.”) The screenplay also fails to convey a sense of the short-lived Howard’s prolificacy and prominence. The movie’s press kit contains a bibliography listing 247 of his “yarns” and asserts that he was “the most popular fiction writer in America from the late 1920’s to the mid 1930’s”—facts that cannot be gleaned from the film itself.

Ireland’s experience as co-founder/co-director of the Seattle International Film Festival and as executive producer of 15 features, including works by John Huston, Ken Russell, and Bernard Rose, has effectively prepared him for his directorial debut. Handsomely photographed in a subdued palate of secondary tones by Claudio Rocha and strikingly designed by John Allen Frick, The Whole Wide World looks better than most current, expensively produced major studio features. The film’s sole formal liability is Hans Zimmer’s score. Effective in its quieter moments—the guitar-and-strings theme beneath the opening credits is lovely—Zimmer’s music grows alienatingly bombastic in sequences depicting Howard’s inner torment. The incongruity between Ireland’s calmly controlled images and Zimmer’s melodramatic scoring damages these key moments. One gets the feeling that the filmmaker had second thoughts about the audience’s ability to respond to these scenes and ill-advisedly instructed his composer to beef them up with hectoring sonics.

Apart from Zellweger’s luminous performance, The Whole Wide World is the sort of modest chamber piece one hesitates to oversell. Like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, it’s small and specific, more concerned with remaining faithful to its own vision than manipulating viewers. Still, at a time when American commercial moviemaking has become as pulpish as Howard’s lurid fiction, it’s difficult not to welcome and celebrate the purposeful integrity and refined craftsmanship of Ireland’s film.CP