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Churl Power

Festering somewhere between an after-school special and kiddie porn lies this frank but melodramatic open wound from veteran Canadian director Léa Pool (Emporte-moi). Adapted by Judith Thompson from Susan Swan's novel The Wives of Bath, Lost and Delirious is about girl joy and girl sorrow, girl solidarity and girl insatiability. In short let's just say that it offers all the emotional breadth of the Lilith Faire (a statement we'll leave conveniently unqualified).

There's a temptation to call Lost and Delirious "the female Stand by Me," concerned as it is with the agony and the ecstasy of adolescent relationships amid the first dawning awareness of mortality (except we never saw River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton doing it). For this film's first half-hour, however, a more fitting definition might be "The Chocolate War with plaid skirts cleverly substituted for plot." As it's about the trials and tribulations of boarding school, replete with a charismatic professor, inner torment, and martyrdom, we could also draw a connection to that Peter Weir film about seizing the day. But let's try to view this story of alienation as some sort of original venture.

Perkins Girls' College is the sort of establishment you find only in a mystical Canada, rich with red-brick tradition yet surrounded by lush, verdant forests. The story begins with shy, self-effacing Mary "Mouse" Bradford (Mischa Barton of Lawn Dogs) being thrust rather rudely into campus life. Her mother died recently, and her father has taken up with a new woman who'd prefer not to have a Mouse in the house. Naturally this provides Mary with a perfect opportunity to dredge up her repressed resentment, leap around to bad covers of Violent Femmes classics, and discover new, exciting feelings.

On hand to assist Mary in her coming of age are her senior roommates, brash Pauline (Piper Perabo of Coyote Ugly) and dizzy, sensuous Victoria (Jessica Paré of Stardom). Mouse quickly notices telltale signs about her friends' alternative vibe: They sleep together noisily and nude and just can't seem to keep their hands and mouths off each other. "I know this sounds, like, naive," Mouse confides to us via narration, "but, I mean, I thought they were, like, practicing for boys."

In fact the crux of the movie hinges on the transition of one of the two young lovers when she discovers her partner may indeed have been "practicing" with her all along. Victoria comes from stiflingly conservative stock. Pauline, on the other hand, makes offhand cracks about her prostitute mother giving her up for adoption. Although the girls are intensely involved, one of them wants balance while the other starves for supernatural swoons of love. Something's gotta give.

What's interesting about Lost and Delirious is that it plays out more like an advice column than a dramatic narrative. Sure, Pauline is as prone to spurting lines from Macbeth at inopportune moments as Victoria is likely to wander off weeping in slow motion, but the obviousness of the proceedings prompts chuckles at moments that should be heart-rending. The movie is beautiful to view (lensed by Pierre Gill), but it takes its clunky message so seriously that it often verges on silliness.

The idea that abuse and neglect lead to insolent and self-destructive behavior is pretty much a given, so it comes as no surprise when the movie shifts its focus to Pauline's overt sexuality and strident machismo. But the bigger twist comes when Mary casually defines her roommate as a lesbian, and Pauline recoils in denial. Announcing that she's not, that she's simply in love with the ultrafeminine, voluptuous Victoria, one starts to wonder how far the hunger for a nurturing mother can transport a soul.

Although all three leads offer loads of wonderful acting, Pool is a little heavy-handed in her delivery. We slip from bathos to fury to voyeurism so often that much of it starts to feel stilted. Thank goodness Graham Greene steps in as a friendly greenskeeper with a fumbling wit; when asked by Mary how much it matters what other people think, he quips, "I suppose that depends on how much they're payin' ya." On that note let's hope we can keep paying Pool to inspire and confound us, but let's also hope she grants us access beyond the obvious.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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