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Jennifer Jason Leigh is more believable when she’s out of control than when she’s overcontrolled, so even those who winced through The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle might want to give her a chance in director Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia. Leigh doesn’t play the title character, but then the film’s method is to use one sister as the key to unlock two stories: those of chilly, maternal older sister Georgia Flood (played by Leigh’s childhood friend, Mare Winningham) and the overheated, self-destructive Sadie (Leigh), a catalyst for both characters’ revelations. (In keeping with the family motif, scripter Barbara Turner is Leigh’s mother.) Each sister is a singer, but where Georgia has a career, Sadie has little more than delusions.

Winningham, who really can trill in an appropriately Joan Baez mode, plays a country-folk-rock star, something like a Seattle Mary Chapin Carpenter. After the hapless Sadie slips out of another bad backup-singer gig—with Trucker (Jimmy Witherspoon), a bluesman crazy for guns—she turns up backstage at one of her sister’s hometown gigs. Georgia welcomes her cautiously; her husband Jake (Ted Levine) more enthusiastically. Where Georgia believes she ought to believe in family—she’s even installed her new one in the house where she and Sadie grew up—Jake seems genuinely to like the way Sadie stirs things up.

The couple takes Sadie home for a while, even though Georgia doesn’t think Sadie’s taste for booze and drugs is a good influence on their kids. Soon, Sadie has forced herself on a skeptical former associate, Bobby (John Doe), and is singing backup with his country-rock band. She doesn’t lose the job even after passing out, high on NyQuil, while performing at a Jewish wedding reception. After all, she’s not the most dope-addled member of the band.

In a skid row parody of Georgia’s exurban domesticity, Sadie finds a geeky admirer, 23-year-old delivery boy Axel (Max Perlich), and marries him. Reluctantly, Georgia helps Sadie’s career. Georgia joins Sadie onstage at a club and, at Axel’s urging, gets her sister a slot at an AIDS benefit where she’ll also be performing. Both incidents end with at least one sister distraught. (Where Sadie is forever proclaiming her devotion to Georgia onstage, her harsh singing seems a rebuke to her sister’s prissy style.) When even Axel tires of Sadie’s jittery moodiness, she heads for San Francisco, crumples emotionally, and finally accepts a ticket back to Seattle from Georgia. So broken-down that the airline is reluctant to allow her on the plane, Sadie ends up in a rehab center.

Georgia’s showcase scene is the one at the benefit, where Sadie’s attempt to channel Van Morrison makes the audience so fidgety that Georgia feels obliged to intervene. It’s a little hard to accept the sibling rivalries the film plays out onstage, however, because its portrait of contemporary music scenes is so off the mark. Though Sadie and Georgia often seem painfully real, the Seattle in which they live is an alternate universe.

Those who pay some attention to contemporary pop music will find a lot of Georgia’s details mystifying. Bobby’s country-rock band has a repertoire consisting almost entirely of Lou Reed songs; Sadie seems to want to be a tortured blues-rock poet in the manner of Van Morrison or Janis Joplin, yet her heavy black eye makeup is clearly auditioning for a gig with a goth band like Alien Sex Fiend; Georgia’s demure music is apparently the biggest thing in a Seattle where grunge never happened (although heroin did).

The film’s principal conceit is that Georgia is talented and that Sadie isn’t, but that assumes that a dulcet voice is central to pop-music success, something that hasn’t been true for at least four decades. Yeah, Leigh can’t sing, but listen to Doe’s version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror”—he can’t sing either, and he’s been making records for 15 years. (In fact, Doe and Leigh’s near-miss harmonies are much like those of Doe’s band, X, in its early days.) Plenty of contemporary singers rely more on bravado than on skill or talent—and Leigh demonstrates her bravado every second she’s on screen. In the age of Courtney Love, Leigh’s weird-little-girl stage presence is hardly so outlandish as the film’s makers must think.

Though the big scenes occur under a spotlight, Georgia’s finest moments take place in more private settings. The two sisters have an elliptical conversation in the kitchen that is powerfully convincing, and their Thanksgiving dinner is as edgy as a real one. (Sadie is actually twitchier offstage than on.) This is a film about sisters more than singers, and it’s bracing in those sequences where that priority is clear.CP