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At the Movies: ‘Miss Firecracker’

DOLORES BARCLAYApril 25, 1989

Undated (AP) _ How much can one hope for in life? Not much, but that still leaves a lot of room. And as we learn in Thomas Schlamme’s ″Miss Firecracker,″ anything is possible.

The key is to just be oneself, and to honestly approach and embrace the opportunities in life. Beth Henley’s story drops enough homilies between the lines to stuff a goosefeather-filled quilt. But these wise little nuggets are drizzled with spice and wit and charm.

Carnelle Scott (Holly Hunter), a plain little thing who cleans fish in a catfish factory, has spent her life in the shadow of her beautiful cousin, Elain, a delicate but catty magnolia blossom who won the Miss Firecracker beauty contest in 1972.

Carnelle, who’s known in town as Miss Hot Tamale because of her lusty ways, has held only one dream in life: to win the pageant. So when she reachs the cutoff age, she dies her hair a brassy, fire-engine red, and enters.

Her main support is a young woman who is equally plain - an endearing seamstress with the improbable name of Popeye (Alfre Woodard), who taught herself to sew by making little outfits for her pet frogs as a child. Popeye, whose brother threw gravel in her eyes when she was a child and then tried to ease the pain with eardrops, hears through her eyes and sees beyond the surface of things in life. She dreams of one day finding that one special love.

Elain (Mary Steenburgen) returns to Yazoo City for the contest to give a speech, ″My Life as a Beauty.″ Her wild brother, Delmount (Tim Robbins), has just been released from an insane asylum after Elain committed him for what she saw as his anti-social ways. After a brief stint removing squished animals from highways, he arrives in Yazoo City to sell the family home.

It all comes together on the runway. Selfishness is exposed like an ugly boil; loyality, optimism and honesty glow.

Henley, who received a Pulitzer Prize for ″Crimes of the Heart″ in 1981, opened ″Miss Firecracker″ off-Broadway to rave reviews in 1984. She wrote the screenplay for the Corsair Pictures release.

In portraits bursting with the magic and eccentricities of the same Southern literary tradition that gave us William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Tennesee Williams, Henley has created memorable and rich characters. These are real people, not Hollywood plastics.

Hunter originated the role of Carnelle off-Broadway, and is marvelously hyper as the unsophisticated, unassuming beauty hopeful. Robbins is strangely maniacal but boyish and easy to love. Steenburgen, who was born in Arkansas, plays magnolia blossom to the hilt and is delicious. But it is Woodard who steals the movie with her lovely innocence as Popeye.We know what love really means.

There are good support performances by Scott Glenn, Ann Wedgeworth and the late Trey Wilson.

Schlamme’s direction is first-rate and tight. He moves this gentle story swiftly. Molly Maginnis went into a lot of closets and attics in Yazoo City, Miss., to come up with the authentic look she provides in costuming.

Ultimately, ″Miss Firecracker″ is a sweet celebration of humanity, of just plain folks trying to get by.

Produced by Fred Berner with Lewis Allen and Ross E. Milloy as executive producers, the movie is rated PG-13 for language.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

X - No one under 17 admitted. Some states may have higher age restrictions.

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