If you suspect that "The Deep End of the Ocean" -- based on the Oprah-endorsed bestseller by Jacquelyn Mitchard -- is a heart-tugging, sentimental paean to the resilience of the American nuclear family, you're half right. Ultimately, this wrenching story of a child's kidnapping and its aftermath may sell itself short in its fervent quest for a comforting and comfortable ending, but it has none of the soaring string choruses, grotesque histrionics or girly-girl soft-rock Hallmark moments that make so many family movies unwatchable (see "The Other Sister," which wastes an appealing performance by Juliette Lewis, for a recent example). Despite its narrative limitations, "The Deep End of the Ocean" is so finely crafted, so alive with wonderful acting and an extraordinary commitment to realism that most audiences will be happy to surrender themselves to its improbable ride.
Entrusting such a big-ticket project to the relatively obscure Ulu Grosbard, a 30-year veteran of stage and screen directing whose best-known film is probably the 1978 Dustin Hoffman crime drama "Straight Time," was undoubtedly viewed as a gamble. If so, it has paid off handsomely. Grosbard takes a story that could easily produce the rankest melodrama and instead delivers a subtle, studied portrait of a grieving family whose members aren't sure if they want to heal their wounds or destroy themselves. Every detail of the production, from Stephen Goldblatt's photography to Dan Davis' design to Elmer Bernstein's quietly unnerving score, is meticulously handled.
"Deep End" is not a self-conscious or formally ambitious film, but it makes better use of the air, space and light that America offers in such abundance than most more artful movies do. Grosbard understands that his actors are good enough to hold the camera and that his most important task is to provide them with an uncluttered work area. For my money, neither Michelle Pfeiffer nor Treat Williams has ever been better. Watching them sitting in their kitchen eating cereal without looking at each other, we learn more about the Cappadora family than we could from 10 pages of expository dialogue.
There's an unshowy elegance and ease to Grosbard's technique that is somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock; Goldblatt's camera keeps us at a slight distance from the Cappadoras, sometimes quietly sidling up to them at odd angles as though we were the missing child who haunts their comfortable household. Grosbard and screenwriter Stephen Schiff, in fact, seem to have grasped that Mitchard's tear-jerker bears some structural similarities to a classic Hitchcockian thriller, in which ordinary people are thrust into a cruel and arbitrary nightmare that will change them in unpredictable ways.
When harried Wisconsin photographer Beth Cappadora (Pfeiffer) momentarily leaves her kids unattended in the Chicago hotel where she's attending her 15th high-school reunion, we know exactly what's coming. But as the Greeks knew, sometimes dramatic tension arises from our powerlessness before events we can foresee all too well. Three-year-old Ben has vanished without a trace while Beth's back was turned, and the cheerful maelstrom of the hotel lobby spirals sickeningly into agitated concern, then panic, and finally the empty, hopeless torpor of dealing with the authorities in the wake of irreversible tragedy.
Pfeiffer can't do anything about her remarkable bone structure, but with damaged hair, pink eye shadow and a shapeless, flowered skirt, she comes about as close as she can to looking like an ordinary middle-American mom in these early scenes. As the enormous manhunt organized by Detective Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg, displaying her usual blend of grit and good cheer) fritters away into nothingness, Beth settles into herself as a hollow-eyed, miserable specter, veins throbbing in her temples, unwilling to abandon her cocoon of grief and guilt.
Setting his granite jaw against the winds of ill fortune, her restaurateur husband, Pat (Williams), drags her out of bed and forces her to at least feign attention to 7-year-old Vincent and infant daughter Kerry. If the stoic, inwardly seething husband and the tormented, self-absorbed wife are contemporary stock characters, they have rarely been so fully realized. Perhaps this movie's secret is that Grosbard is less interested in the single act of extraordinary violence done to this family than in its daily rhythms of ordinary violence: When Vincent comes home from school to find Beth still in bed, for example, he gives his squalling baby sister her bottle before calmly knocking an antique vase off its shelf to smash on the floor.
Nine years later, after the Cappadoras move from Madison to Chicago and, at least superficially, adjust to the rhythms of life without Ben, a neighborhood kid named Sam rings the doorbell to see if they want their lawn mowed. (I'm not telling you anything the producers don't want you to know.) Beth's immediate suspicions are confirmed when Detective Bliss determines that this boy, who lives with a gentle adoptive father named George (John Kapelos, in a role of understated dignity), is in fact their missing son. As mysterious and implausible as this development is, Grosbard and Schiff pull it off, because their story is less about the facts of the case than the emotional torque they exert on the family. Both believing they have been granted a miraculous reprieve from their years of loss and pain, Pat and Beth gradually discover that the damage they've done to their marriage and to Vincent, now a laconic teenager (Jonathan Jackson of television's "General Hospital") can't be so easily undone.
Although Ryan Merriman is likable enough as the rediscovered 12-year-old Ben/Sam -- and his strained, exploratory relationship with Vincent provides one of the film's most appealing threads -- he can't quite conquer a thankless role that demands him to change almost overnight from a displaced, homesick child to an overly articulate mini-adult capable of solving everyone's problems. Pat and Beth come to realize that this kid they've brought into their home bears almost no relationship to their idealized missing toddler, that in fact he is a stranger they may never know. You could say all parents must face a less dramatic version of this dilemma, when they finally notice that their children are no longer outgrowths of themselves. It's on this almost subconscious level, and in its painstaking artistry -- rather than the tacked-on tidiness of its resolution -- that "The Deep End of the Ocean" brushes closest to emotional truth.