Kris Kristofferson, he of the craggy face that seems to hold so many secrets, is enjoying a second wind as an actor. A supporting role as a badass sheriff in John Sayles’ Lone Star in 1996 made critics take favorable notice. Now, as Bill Willis, an expatriate American writer based on James Jones – author of the World War II novels From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line – Kristofferson gives a performance of magnetic power and tenderness. Not bad for a sixty-two-year-old former Air Force brat and Rhodes scholar whom one film guide kisses off as “American leading man of the Seventies; former folk singer and musician.”
Screw that précis. The only thing wrong with Kristofferson in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries – based on Kaylie Jones’s semiauto-biographical 1990 novel about life with her Big Daddy – is that there’s not enough of him in producer Ismail Merchant’s film. Director James Ivory, who co-wrote the script with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, puts the spotlight on the soldier’s daughter, Channe Willis. As played by Leelee Sobieski (Deep Impact) – a sixteen-year-old Helen look-alike with haunted eyes – Channe is a child caught between two cultures during the Sixties and Seventies. Her American parents, Bill and Marcella (Barbara Hershey), have set up house in Paris. Adding to Channe’s confusion is Billy (Jesse Bradford), the French orphan whom dad and mom adopted at age six.
Ivory, an American who has lived in Paris, is pitch-perfect at catching the problems of assimilation faced by the teenage Channe and Billy, who attend bilingual schools and rub shoulders with the cultural elite at the glamorous poker parties thrown by their parents.
The screenplay is less adept at structure. Subplots, many irrelevant, weaken what is otherwise an affecting tale of love in the family trenches. The movie regains its ground when Bill, suffering from a heart condition, brings his family back to his house on Long Island, where the assimilation process starts again. Billy feels alienated, and Channe uses promiscuous sex to feel loved. Sobieski, a real find, poignantly conveys Channe’s need for her father. And Kristofferson, wrestling illness to finish his final novel of war in the Pacific, is even more moving as the old soldier tries to heal deeper wounds at home.