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Eve of Danger

Eve's Bayou
Chris Helcermanas-Benge

We Know What You Did Last Summer: Jurnee Smollett harbors a terrible secret about her father (Samuel L. Jackson) in 'Eve's Bayou.'

A small child undoes 'Eve's Bayou'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S AN APPROACH certain to invigorate one half of the audience and aggravate the other: Eve's Bayou tells a story about people of color that doesn't touch on the subjects of racism or black-on-black violence. The setting is a small town in the Louisiana bayou in the late 1950s, where an affluent family is about to be undone by the careless act of a 10-year-old girl named Eve. In the opening sequence, Eve tells us that this was the summer she killed her father, the handsome, adulterous Dr. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson, who co-produced). The summer unfolds as a conflict between rival sorceresses of a sort: Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) is Eve's flamboyant aunt, who has second sight and believes she can foretell death. Mozelle's enemy, Elzora (Diahann Carroll, in one of the most offbeat comebacks since Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil), tells fortunes in the marketplace, her face painted white like a skull.

Eve's Bayou is a unique story in which the supernatural elements duel with the somewhat flat story of a troubled family. Unfortunately, discussing the film's main problem means beating up on a child actor. As Eve, young Jurnee Smollett puts the movie off course. This is the kind of film that needs an especially subtle actor to show us the complexities of a girl who would be mad enough to put a curse on her father. Smollett seems to have been hired mostly for her cuteness. She is cute, God knows, but she has the studied precociousness of a born trooper, of a kid in a sitcom. And director Kasi Lemmons' inexperience shows every time she lets the little girl mug.

The inexperience shows elsewhere as well. You can only guess that certain too-pleased-with-herself qualities in the daughter are reflected in her mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Roz carries herself like an empress, and it's possible we are meant to suppose that she's so intimidating that Louis went looking for someone a bit more pliable. Lemmons, however, doesn't shape nuances like this. Still, the first-time directoral projects of actors usually aren't conflicted, multicharacter stories like Eve's Bayou. Lemmons (best known as Jodie Foster's FBI roommate in The Silence of the Lambs and the spouse of Vondie Curtis Hall, who plays an itinerant artist here) has tried to tell an ambitious story that isn't "feminist" in the worst sense of modern film (woman good, man bad). Eve's Bayou is not flawless. It's as frustrating in its missteps as it is exciting in its Gothic touches and chronicling of women's lives. With luck, this will be the first effort in a career to watch.

Eve's Bayou (R; 109 min.), directed and written by Kasi Lemmons, photographed by Amy Vincent and starring Jurne Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson and Debbi Morgan.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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