Alan & Naomi (film)
Sterling Van Wagenen
Triton Pictures, 1992.
Alan & Naomi was released ten years ago, in 1992. It's an extraordinary movie, easily one of the finest feature films made by a Latter-day Saint director during the last decade. Yet I think it's something of a "lost film," which is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable.
Alan & Naomi was directed by Sterling Van Wagenen, the co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival. Van Wagenen had previously made a number of films for the Church, including Christmas Snows, Christmas Winds (1980), and he had distinguished himself as a producer. He produced The Trip to Bountiful (1985), for which Gerarldine Page won an Academy Award for Best Actress. The movie also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, and a number of other awards. But after Alan & Naomi, Van Wagenen focused on teaching at Brigham Young University and making documentaries. He never directed another feature film, so there was little reason for later movie reviewers or writers to talk about his past films, i.e., Alan & Naomi. And the movie didn't have a very big release initially -- grossing only $259,311 at the U.S. box office.
Based on an acclaimed children's book by Myron Levoy, the video seems to have gained some popularity itself in schools. But having seen it, it's easy to see why it's not very popular or well-remembered, despite being an artistically and morally accomplished work of filmmaking.
Alan & Naomi tells the story of Alan, a young Jewish boy (perhaps 14 years old) living in World War II-era New York City, whose parents ask him to spend time with Naomi a young neighbor girl the same age that he is. Naomi is essentially catatonic. She has not spoken for years and screams when anybody other than her mother and grandmother approach her. She was traumatized when, while living in her native Paris, she witnessed her father being killed by Nazi soldiers.
Alan is not the least bit interested in becoming a regular visitor or helping this girl who up until now he has dismissed as crazy. But his parents, mainly his father, persuade him to do so, because it's the right thing to do. Alan's father is played very convincingly by Michael Gross, best known as the father of Michael J. Fox's character on the sitcom Family Ties. Physically, Gross' character is so transformed into a different era and persona that I would not have recognized him if I had not seen the credits. Although playing, once again, a kindly father of a teenager, he creates here a distinctive yet very believable character, very much a New York Jew from the 1940s, but with depth, and in no way a stereotype or caricature.
The rest of the cast, including Amy Aquino as Alan's mother and Kevin Connolly as Alan's best friend Shaun, is uniformly excellent. But the movie largely hangs on the abilities of its lead actor, Lukas Haas, who dazzles with his natural and sympathetic turn as the young Alan. Haas is in nearly every scene, and his acting, which never seems like acting, transported me to the milieu and engaged me in the story.
Finally, Vanessa Zaoui deserves credit for succeeding with the challenging role of a traumatized catatonic Parisian girl who slowly -- but never completely -- emerges from within the mental walls erected to protect her from further trauma.
Apart from the performances, Alan & Naomi is commendable for the professionalism that is evident in every other aspect of the film. I was instantly struck by the cinematography -- how a cohesive period look was achieved, and made to look realistic yet also appealing, despite the relative poverty of Alan's neighborhood. Considerable care obviously went into the sets, and I was not surprised to see no less than nine set dressers credited with re-creating the 1940s homes, school, and exteriors.
There's something of a warm glow to the whole production. Imagine a WWII Jewish period piece made by the same people who make the LDS Homefront public service ads. But although that is the look, Alan & Naomi does not have the feel or tone of Homefront ads and Church videos. This is, in fact, an often melancholy and even sad film, with an ending that will surprise you -- because while hopeful, it is not at all the happy ending one might expect.
The story itself probably has a lot to do with the relative lack of popularity. This is apparently a very faithful adaptation of the book, and the director does nothing to call attention to himself or his techniques, or to spice things up with added action or artificial plot devices. But clearly this is a difficult product to market. It is not a fun-fest for kids (such as Spy Kids), it doesn't feature animals, aliens or sports, nor is it animated. Yet the mere fact that it features child-age protagonists limits its appeal to many adults.
The movie is, however, a thoughtful, realistic, interesting film. Alan & Naomi requires more patience and a greater attention span than most children's movies. I found it an enjoyable experience, but one comparable to a bicycle ride in the park, rather than a roller coaster ride. There are stick ball games, the flying of toy glider planes, and even brief fisticuffs with a bully at school, all of which might spark interest in kids, but the movie is dominated by the gradual development of trust between Alan and the largely silent Naomi, mostly taking place in a single apartment. If you can get kids to watch the movie, there are remarkable lessons to be learned. There is no preachiness to the movie or artificiality to the characters, but the characters, despite making mistakes, simply exhibit a commendable and inspiring level of goodness and decency.
There is little in the way of "spectacle" in Alan & Naomi. The movie doesn't really break new ground, nor is it particularly challenging. But this is a very professional piece of work, a carefully crafted, artistic film featuring beautiful cinematography and near-flawless acting. It is easily the best film made by the Leucadia Film Corporation (whose alumni include Blair Treu and Mitch Davis). I recommend renting it, but this isn't really a movie I would want to own and watch many times.
Perhaps most of all, the talent and professionalism with which Alan & Naomi was created made me regret that Van Wagenen has not directed other feature films. He has done admirable documentary work in recent years, including projects about the Dead Sea scrolls, and while at BYU he served as the executive producer of many LDS-themed projects, including the Elizabeth Hansen/Richard Dutcher collaboration Eliza and I (1997).
Alan & Naomi (along with Schindler's List) is one of a number of movies that Kieth Merrill was talking about when he observed that Latter-day Saint filmmakers have made more movies about Jews than than they have made about Latter-day Saints. This is a very good movie about Jewish characters, notable in the way its characters are clearly Jewish, yet the film is universal in its approachability and its messages. But I would particularly like to see what Van Wagenen would have done if he had directed another dramatic film, with a story with Latter-day Saint characters.
Director: Sterling Van Wagenen Based on: book by Myron Levoy Produced by: David Anderson and Mark Balsam Produced by: Leucadia Film Corporation, Maltese Productions Distributted by: Triton Pictures, SandStar Year released: 1992
© 2002 Preston Hunter < email@example.com >