Willard (Elijah Wood) is a ten-year-old city boy whose mom has dumped him with her friend Lily Reed (Melanie Griffith) and Lily's husband, Ben (Don Johnson), in Paradise, a small waterfront town. Willard suspects that his father and pregnant mother are about to divorce, and he feels alienated. The Reeds feel worse. Since the accidental death of their son, they have barely spoken. In Americanizing the much grittier French film Le Grand Chemin, writer Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches) — making her directing debut — gives the movie the kind of tastefulness you see on afternoon TV specials that offer kids a moral question to chew on between commercials.

Willard strikes up a friendship with Billie (Thora Birch), a nine-year-old tomboy. In the grating tradition of movie brats, Willard and Billie can articulate emotion with uncanny clarity. Wood and Birch laugh and cry on cue like seasoned pros, but there's not a trace of real childhood behavior in either performance. The whole movie might have sunk in bathos were it not for Griffith and Johnson. Cast against type as simple folk — Ben's a shrimp fisherman — they deliver deeply affecting performances. A cathartic scene in which they confront their anger and guilt over their son's death has the kind of lacerating power that suggests a different and much better movie.