Grade: D

“Hell on Earth” might be more like it. Watching this shameless
tearjerker–the feature debut of TV director Mark Piznarski–
makes a viewer feel like he’s stuck in a time warp. The story
–about a sweet, impressionable girl named Samantha (Leelee
Sobieski) who, one fateful summer, finds herself torn between
affection for her long-time local beau Jasper (Josh Hartnett)
and attraction to arrogant but gorgeous preppie Kelley (Chris
Klein), who’s forced to stay in her town to do community
service after a destructive drag-race–has a contemporary
setting, but its rank sentimentality and soupy plot seem more
redolent of movies of a bygone era. This sort of romantic
triangle, with two doe-eyed guys pining away weepily over a
single life-filled but (as we can easily foresee from an early
visit to a doctor’s office) medically endangered gal, seemed
a lot more at home in the soap operas of the thirties and
forties about women drawn to handsome rascals as their long-
suffering boyfriends looked sadly on, than it does in our far
more jaded age.

The incredibly old-fashioned nature of the piece is accentuated
by other elements of the narrative. Much of the running-time
is devoted to the rebuilding of a demolished diner which is
a modern equivalent of the old community barn-raisings so
frequent in old flicks. And toward the close of the tale we’re
confronted with one of those apparently painless cases of
cancer that occur only in the cheapest kinds of fiction and
are designed solely to extract tears from the easily distressed:
since all the characters on screen are busy crying, shouldn’t
audience members do likewise?

An attractive cast has been enlisted to try to make this
contrived script–Fannie Hurst channeled through Michael
Seitzman–persuasive, but though they work hard, it’s all to
no avail. Klein, who was so charming in “American Pie” and
“Election,” goes through the prescribed paces of suffering and
longing here (he’s the product of a bad home-life, of course),
and so does Hartnett (the scruffy teen rebel of “The Faculty”);
but their performances seem more suited to afternoon television
than to the big screen. Sobieski, who was impressive in the
CBS miniseries on Joan of Arc, radiates a natural exuberance,
but her character’s indecision between her two suitors
eventually comes to seem more ditzy than affecting, and there’s
really nothing she can do with the picture’s maudlin final act.
The older cast members do yeoman service on behalf of material
that must have struck them as hopelessly cornball; Bruce
Greenwood, for instance, must here go through much catch-in-
the-throat melodramatic excess as Sam’s father–a fate that
seems especially cruel when one remembers the true pain of
troubled parenthood he was able to convey in Atom Egoyan’s
incomparably superior “The Sweet Hereafter.” And it doesn’t
help matters that the whole affair is encased in a music score
by Andrea Morricone (daughter of the famous Ennio) that’s so
sappy and overemphatic that it seems almost a parody of Waxman
or Steiner.

On the plus side, “Here on Earth” does offer some pretty
scenery, with Minnesota locations standing in nicely for the
Massachusetts Berkshires, where the story is set. But
handsome outdoor shots can’t compensate for a script which is
so hoary that it seems positively antediluvian, and so
manipulative that a viewer can’t help but feel emotionally
manhandled by the time it finally lets go.