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February 7-13, 2007

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'The Dead Girl'

Forlorn: Toni Collette plays a lonely woman who stumbles across the body of 'The Dead Girl.'

The Departed

'The Dead Girl' tells five stories about one victim

By Richard von Busack

STAGGERING through a winter-dormant orchard that looks like a topographical map of the Crown of Thorns, a plain and lonely woman (Toni Collette) is startled by the call of a bird of prey. She looks down and finds the corpse of an unknown woman, identifiable only by a tattoo on her forearm reading "12:13" and a cheap gold necklace reading "Taken." Writer/director Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl is essentially five short films about the fate of the deceased woman. In a quintet of tidy, 20-minute long episodes, three of which end on upbeat notes, the former soap-opera-actress-turned-director (Blue Car) oversees a series of conflicts.

"The Stranger" has Collette, that chronic overplayer of forlorn women, being caught between her spiteful mother (Piper Laurie, essentially reprising the mom in Carrie) and a drawling supermarket cashier (Giovanni Ribisi, doing Rod Steiger). In "The Sister," a grief-stricken student (Rose Byrne) working at a coroner's office becomes convinced that the dead girl is her runaway sister, missing 15 years. "The Wife" has Mary Beth Hurt as the devoutly religious spouse of a man who seems linked to the murder. "The Mother" features the grieving parent (Marcia Gay Harden) of the deceased, coming to a ratty motel somewhere in the drug-prone district of Southern California; the motel is the home of the last person (Kerry Washington) to see the dead girl alive. And finally, "The Dead Girl" shows us the world of Krista (Brittany Murphy) during the day she died.

The word "depressing" ought to be used with care when describing indie cinema. Integrity often seems depressing, and so do stories of the lower depths. The title warns away the chicken-hearted, and the rough patches have to be balanced against a 25-day shoot. It's a labor of love, in short. Even calling it "depressing" is depressing, but euphemistic language won't make The Dead Girl a better film. The first problem is its too-neat structure, with epiphanies coming up three times an hour. And even if Murphy does a convincing roughhouser voice, Moncrieff's understanding of the hard-times life seems picked up secondhand, perhaps from acting classes. It doesn't convince the ear when we hear Hurt, scolding her straying husband (Nick Searcy): "You've been sniffin' round prostitutes, wettin' your little noodle." Then there is the matter of the scenes between Krista and her john/boyfriend/pimp (Josh Brolin) as she wheedles a ride to join her little girl on her birthday. It's all about as genuine as the felt-tip-drawn tattoos on Josh Brolin's arms. When Moncrieff gets away from the poor characters, she's on safer ground. In "The Sister" episode, James Franco courts Byrne as she worries over the identity of the corpse. Maybe what we mean by "chemistry" is an actor losing his composure a little, and in Byrne's arms Franco misplaces his usual suaveness. And he has a romantic line that nicely echoes the scheme of the film, "I feel if I let go of you, you'll run away." Just like Babel, The Lost Girl insists on a world linked by mutual loss and need. It's a legitimate artistic view, but just as in Babel, healing seems to be something that's so quick it's practically drive-through.

Movie Times The Dead Girl (R; 93 min.), directed and written by Karen Moncrieff, photographed by Michael Grady and starring Toni Collette and Brittany Murphy, opens Feb. 9 at selected theaters.

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