Director Craven does not lose footing with 'Trembled'

by Sam Lederer | 4/8/02 5:00am

All too often, directors of Vietnam and war-genre movies only focus on the military aspect of the conflict. Mel Gibson's new film "We Were Soldiers" is only the latest in a series of high-budget war movies. But not many filmmakers stop to think about the domestic side of the Vietnam War.

Jay Craven is not one of those callous and uncalculating directors. His new film, "The Year That Trembled," takes place not on a grassy battlefield in the Mekong Delta, but rather on a lush farm in Chestnut Hills, Ohio. Craven, who attended the showing, aired his new film for an enthused Spaulding crowd on Saturday night.

The film presents a realistic and edgy account of the lives of three teenagers in rural Ohio in the shadow of the 1970 Kent State University shootings. Rather than enjoying a carefree summer before the onset of adulthood, Casey (Jonathan Brandis), Charlie (Jonathan Woodward) and Hairball (Charlie Finn) find themselves worrying about escaping the draft, struggling to find their ideological stance on the war and trying to preserve their friendship.

Scott Lax's novel of the same name was adapted for the silver screen by Craven with great attention to detail, juggling multiple character developments and subplots. The main story, though, follows the three young adults and their responses to the shootings.

When Charlie is absorbed into a civil suit on behalf of the victims of the Kent State shootings, it puts a strain on his marriage to his teacher wife, Helen (Marin Hinkle). She plays the resilient and steadfast member of the group to whom the others turn for guidance.

Several newcomers, though, infiltrate the group over the course of the summer. The would-be writer Casey falls for the dashing Buddhist Jennifer (Kiera Chaplin). After she breaks Casey's heart by not reciprocating his love, he turns to Helen for comfort and creates some tension within the group. Campus peace activist Judy (Meredith Monroe) also joins the group in an attempt to stay out of the public eye.

Judy becomes the focus of an FBI inquiry into the burning of the ROTC dorms at Kent State and the resulting chaos. Her father (Fred Willard) and his buddy in the bureau (Martin Mull) are wholly unbelievable as they try to save the youths from this horrible and hopeless war.

The group slowly disintegrates as Charlie is first enveloped in his case, trying to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Kennedy, and is then drafted while Hairball gets a ride to Canada from Judy's father and skips the draft. Judy is taken into police custody and is not seen again.

Brandis shines as the innocent romantic Casey who finds his world turned upside down as a result of all the drama surrounding the war. The former "Ladybugs" and "Sidekicks" star evokes a certain amount of sympathy for his failed search for love and solace. Hinkle however doesn't sell her part as a devoted teacher and leader as she willingly gives up her teaching position in the face of adversity.

The use of footage from the 1970s is especially astute of Craven, as it provides a concrete basis for the story development and serves as a constant reminder that the Kent State shootings were a dark and shameful reality.

But Craven keeps the mood from plunging into depression as he injects a few key scenes of humor, courtesy of Finn and Sean Nelson, who plays the day-dreaming Phil Robbins, never without guitar in hand.

Craven also employs a well-rounded and light soundtrack which is a good change of pace from the typical hit-driven soundtracks of past '60s and '70s movies. He uses music adroitly to reflect the mood of the characters and the overall emotional tone of the film.

Craven's status as a filmmaker and professor of film and video studies at Marlboro College will assure "The Year That Trembled" screen time in local theaters. But the film might not win favor with national audiences because of its limited visual features and reliance on stock footage.

Craven described the task he embarked on with this film to the Spaulding audience on Saturday, "I'm out here alone tonight," he said, "The film was a leap of faith." For his courage and dedication to portray a realistic representation of the Kent State shootings and their effects, Craven should be commended.

"The Year That Trembled" provides an interesting and imaginative take on the Vietnam War and deserves a chance from viewers.