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Smoke and Mirrors

The film, narrated by Woody Harrelson, reminds the viewer of the surprisingly tolerant (and suppressed) 60-year-old La Guardia Commission report and the overwhelming presence of reefer in the 'Nam while reiterating two political points. The first is that, in the absence of any hard evidence of marijuana's deleteriouseffect, it was drafted—mainly by the original drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger—as a way to police Mexican laborers, control jazz musicians, and harass campus radicals. A weed for all seasons, it has been blamed on Chinese Communists and charged, almost simultaneously, with creating both juvenile delinquency and teenage apathy. Mann's second point is that the campaign to eradicate pot has been tremendously expensive. In its way, Grass is doggedly straightforward. No matter how thick the purple haze, you'll get the idea. Mann doesn't spend much time evoking a marijuana aesthetic—the movie's acme of cannabis-infused artistry is Cheech and Chong. Nor does Mann bother with epiphenomena like High Times—although the magazine is unlikely to forget him when it gives out its annual Dopey awards next year.

Richard Nixon is cast as the movie's most villainous cop; Ronald Reagan is used to signify the end of society's tolerance—and of mine too, I'm afraid. Grass's relentless hard sell ultimately grows wearisome. Although only 80 minutes, it ends, and not a moment too soon, with a pot legalization rally that might well be reproduced outside the theater.


Picnic at hanging rock: Cruise in M:I-2
photo: Richard Foreman
Picnic at hanging rock: Cruise in M:I-2

Details

Mission: Impossible 2
Directed by John Woo
Written by Robert Towne
A Paramount release

Grass
Directed by Ron Mann
Written by Solomon Vesta
A Unapix release
Film Forum Through June 13

Thirteen
Written and directed by David Williams
Walter Reade Theater June 2 through 8

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Opening some years after a distinguished film-festival career (which includes the 1998 "New Directors/New Films"), David Williams's Thirteen is a triumph of understatement. Williams's first feature is modest and thoughtful, homespun and humanist and regionally based—a sort of old-school Sundance production.

The title refers not to public television but to the heroine's age. Sometime after her 13th-birthday party, Nina (Wilhamenia Dickens) runs away from home, hitchhiking into the autumn countryside outside Richmond, Virginia. As her motivations are largely a mystery, much of Thirteen suggests a teenage Citizen Kane, with various explanatory flashbacks arising out of the interview two social workers conduct with Nina's mother Lillian (Lillian Foley). The inquiry is interrupted by Nina's casual return. Having experienced some sort of epiphany, the girl decides to earn money to buy a car—baby-sitting, pet-watching, attempting to become a real estate agent.

Wilhamenia Dickens's Nina is tall and skinny, with sad eyes and a sullen overbite. Blunt yet withholding, she's an authentic adolescent presence who makes no attempt to charm the audience. Nina is shown through her mother's eyes. Her activities are annotated, if not entirely explained, by Lillian's low-key voice-over, and her enigmas are filtered through the prism of Lillian's idiosyncratic religious faith. The two principals seem to be less acting than playing themselves, which, in a sense, they are—albeit in a fictionalized framework. (Dickens is a foster child whom Foley adopted; the filmmaker is their neighbor.)

Ending with Nina's 14th-birthday party, Thirteen is a youth movie without a single youth movie cliché. Highly composed and sometimes stilted, it nevertheless manages a documentary freshness. In this quietly affecting mother-daughter story, Williams has created a true imitation of life. The movie is as eloquently uninflected and filled with quirks as its star.

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