We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Fifteen-year-old Hillary and 14-year-old Bonnie meet one sunny morning at a Southern California bus stop and celebrate their budding friendship by embarking on a spree—stoning cars from a freeway overpass; raising hell in a drugstore and CD shop; and cutting loose in a video-game arcade. Their euphoria builds to hysteria as they rampage down suburban streets shouting obscenities at strangers, and culminates in their seemingly motiveless stabbing of an elderly woman in her kitchen. Afterward, in Hillary’s bedroom, they realize that they “did the baddest thing in the whole world,” but agree that they have just shared the happiest day of their lives.

Producer/director Rafael Zelinsky’s Fun, which James Bosley has adapted for the screen from his one-act play, employs a flashback structure to explore how and why this random murder happened. Sequestered in a detention center following their convictions, the girls are interrogated by Jane (Leslie Hope), an edgy, overworked youth counselor, and John (William R. Moses), a pop journalist covering the case for a magazine. This framing story—shot in black-and-white Super-16mm with a handheld camera, then blown up to 35mm to create a bleached-out, neo-documentary look—is intercut with intensely saturated color flashbacks of incidents bracketing the killing.

When the girls meet, the flash of recognition is, as one puts it, “like a door opening.” Their contrasting temperaments harmonize in a shared alienation. Dark, introspective Hillary (Renee Humphrey), who has been raped by her father, keeps a journal filled with bitter poetic expressions of her impacted emotions. Titian-haired, hyperactive Bonnie (Alicia Witt), bouncing off walls to the Guns N’ Roses music blasting in her head, has been abandoned by her mother and dumped by an abusive boyfriend. She says she’s been molested by her brother, though this claim appears to be a fabrication designed to ingratiate herself with Hillary. To some extent, the girls are presented as society’s victims who understand, through wretched experience, that “people who shit on their kids aren’t gonna stop.” But Zelinsky refuses to lay all of the blame on their parents, who, significantly, are never seen. These nihilistic, media-savvy teen-agers cunningly manipulate their inquisitors. “It will be super when they make a movie about us,” thinks Hillary, though she disapproves of the obvious casting of Drew Barrymore, whom she considers “a pussy.” In stabbing the old lady, the two girls, who repeatedly assert that “fun is the meaning of life,” strike out at the joylessness, regimentation, and corruption of the adult world. By killing her, they eradicate the possibility that they, too, will be forced to endure long monotonous lives, only to end their days in dreary, kitsch-filled ranch houses waiting for tardy children to drive them to bingo.

Moses can’t do much to illuminate John, an underwritten stock figure—the opportunistic but vaguely sympathetic journalist in pursuit of a hot story. But Jane is more complex, and memorably realized by Hope’s unnervingly tense performance. A prickly, deracinated divorcée, she recognizes something of her own alienation in Hillary, and the long sequence in which she exposes her own painful history to her client is the film’s emotional centerpiece. When Hillary refuses to cooperate with Jane’s therapeutic agenda, rejecting the possibility of becoming “some stupid normal bitch like you,” her taunt cuts like a switchblade. Zelinsky doesn’t cop out by moralistically dismissing Hillary’s belief that a day of defiant “fun,” no matter how monstrous, might well be worth more than Jane’s crabbed existence.

Intermittently, Fun betrays its shoestring origins, most evidently in passages marred by clumsy post-dubbing. And the movie collapses in its final reels. By the time Zelinsky finally shows us the murder, the sequence is anticlimactic. The issues he has already raised transcend whatever shock value the act possesses; it hardly helps that the victim is poorly played by Ania Suli and the stabbing, with Handel’s Messiah on the soundtrack, is unconvincingly staged. A contrived, melodramatic climax ends the film unsatisfyingly, indicating that Zelinsky and Bosley couldn’t figure out any plausible resolution to the complex questions they posed and, in desperation, took the easy way out. Despite these flaws, Fun remains a provocative, disturbing experience, memorable for Humphrey, Witt, and Hope’s brave, unsparing performances as well as its penetrating exploration of social pathologies for which nobody has yet devised cures.

In last year’s Vanya on 42nd Street, Louis Malle and Andre Gregory filmed a rehearsal of Chekhov’s classic comedy-drama in the abstract space of a decaying theater to stress the timelessness and universality of the turn-of-the-century Russian play. In Country Life, Australian-born actor/writer/director Michael Blakemore adapts Uncle Vanya to a specific place and time—a sheep farm in New South Wales at the close of World War I. Blakemore’s idea is intriguing, but his execution is sluggish, obvious, and coarse.

Blakemore casts himself as the 60ish Alexander, who returns home with his young, beautiful wife Deborah (Greta Scacchi) after 22 years in England where, he asserts, he has moved in intellectual circles and gained a reputation as a prominent theater critic. During his absence, the farm has been selflessly managed by Sally (Kerry Fox), Alexander’s daughter from his first marriage, and his former brother-in-law Jack (John Hargreaves). A finicky, pretentious fraud, Alexander harasses the servants and petulantly demands that the free-and-easy Outback manor conform to cosmopolitan London manners—dinner at eight, French wines with meals. The idle, sexually unfulfilled Deborah’s presence inflames Jack as well as the altruistic, alcoholic family doctor, Max (Sam Neill), the object of Sally’s unspoken adoration. Passions, tempers, and ancient grudges flare, leading to Alexander and Deborah’s departure to Perth at the film’s fadeout.

If you are familiar with Uncle Vanya, you’ll recognize how closely Blakemore’s screenplay mirrors Chekhov’s plot and characters. (If you’re not, head for the library to read the play and the video store to rent Malle’s vastly superior adaptation.) Yet in transposing Uncle Vanya to Australia, Blakemore has devastated Chekhov’s masterpiece, reducing the playwright’s wry, melancholy insights to platitudes, his characters to cartoons, and his poetic language to palaver. The few new elements he introduces—Max’s nonconformist pacifist and economic convictions; Australia’s prejudice against Aborigines—are only marginally developed, and fail to compensate for all that has been lost.

Overly pictorial yet oddly unatmospheric, Country Life features an ensemble of English and Australian players that fails to cohere. The Aussies come off best. Fox stands out as the independent, lovelorn Sally, and Neill and Hargreaves turn in competent performances. (The latter is quite compelling in his early scenes, but ends up over-the-top, drunk, and howling “Sorry!” like a refugee from a Monty Python Gumby Theater sketch.) Entombed in white layers of cotton, lace, and tasseled shawls, Scacchi fails to undress, an uncharacteristic oversight, focusing unwelcome attention on her acting, which consists of a series of tight, blank smiles. Popping his pink eyes, Blakemore is a one-dimensional washout, the most annoying householder since Richard Benjamin’s obnoxious turn in Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Country Life diddles with a number of familiar polarities—East/West, repression/liberation, city/country, sophistication/naiveté—without contributing a single fresh insight to any of them. The film’s symbolism redefines obtuseness, notably the sequence where randy Max and frustrated Deborah, strolling in the wilds, pass a phallic snake before observing copulating kangaroos through a spyglass. By the emblematic fadeout, which finds Sally and Jack alone again, planning to replace a ruined English rose garden with a plot of hardy, native kangaroo flowers, you might find yourself hankering for the unthinkable—a Merchant-Ivory retrospective.