Miss Firecracker

I mean this as a compliment: Beth Henley's characters belong to the stage; they breathe best where they can stretch out in their own crackbrained Southern Gothic theatricality. Movies tend to constrict Henley's oddballs. Remember the arid, all-star (Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange) 1986 screen version of Henley's Pulitzer-winning Crimes of the Heart?

The Mississippi-bred Henley wrote Miss Firecracker right after Crimes. The former is much the lesser play and much the better movie. Go figure. It helps that director Thomas Schlamme avoids the stultifying hat-in-hand approach of most filmed theater productions. The movie boasts its own scratching vitality and a cast that makes rousing good company.

Holly Hunter, the hellcat from Broadcast News, is sensational as Carnelle Scott, a catfish-factory worker from Yazoo City, Mississippi, whose rep as the town slut can't stop her dream to win the local Miss Firecracker Beauty Pageant.

"I like a woman who can take it on the chin," says her carny lover, Mac Sam (Scott Glenn), and Carnelle sure has. Orphaned at eight, she was raised with her two spoiled first cousins. The well-married Elaine — a beguilingly bitchy Mary Steenburgen — is a former Miss Firecracker who'd rather not see her scraggly cousin succeed. Cousin Delmount, played with tickling humor by Tim Robbins, has just been sprung from an asylum, and he's eager to sell the decrepit family manse Carnelle still calls home. Delmount treats the local belles like dogs but succumbs to a salt-of-the-earth black seamstress named Popeye (the glorious Alfre Woodard), who claims, "He makes my heart hot."

Too much chin-up indomitability can choke the life out of a movie. You want to hide your head when Carnelle starts spouting about her search for "eternal grace." But Henley's antic humor carries the day for her characters, lively loons who laugh to keep from toppling into the abyss. Miss Firecracker is a spirited lark that happily survives most missteps; it's shot through with enchantment.