There is nothing ordinary about Juliette Lewis. Her wide smile can crinkle her eyes into slits, and she’ll often cover her face with a nervous hand. It’s as if her thoughts were too intense and personal to just leave out there for anyone to read. No wonder we’re seduced. In Cape Fear, she earned an Oscar nomination for keeping us rivetingly unsettled. In Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen challenged her by focusing solely on her face as the two shared a scene in a cab. But Lewis played the camera like a virtuoso, her flickering expressions cutting to the truth.
It’s Lewis who draws us into That Night, a sweetly conventional film version of the darkly haunting Alice McDermott novel of the same name. Lewis plays Sheryl O’Connor, a high-school sass queen from Long Island, N.Y., circa 1961. Sheryl attracts lots of guys and, natch, falls for the wrong one. He’s Rick (C. Thomas Howell), a rebel in leather. Her widowed mother (Helen Shaver) disapproves, so Sheryl sees Rick on the sly with the help of Alice Bloom (Eliza Dushku), a 10-year-old neighbor who idolizes her.
Being so near the heat generated by Sheryl and Rick changes Alice’s life. McDermott made us understand how. Writer Craig Bolotin, in his directing debut, offers only a pale facsimile that traffics in too many coming-of-age clichés. Maybe that’s why the film’s release has been delayed for over a year. What makes That Night worth seeing is a knockout performance from Lewis, who evokes the joy and confusion of sexuality. You can’t take your eyes off her.