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Limbo Reviews

It's customary to praise John Sayles' movies for their unconventional narratives, subtle characterizations and stubborn refusal to play the shallow, low-expectations game of Hollywood moviemaking. But it's time to spill the beans: The indie idol has no clothes. This glum drama set in Alaska, where damaged souls drift, is surprisingly watchable. But that's mostly because Sayles gives his three leads the opportunity to do what they do so well. That's not nothing — does Michael Bay take time out from blowing stuff up or cramming 50 cuts into five minutes of footage to let actors act? — but it's not the same as being an interesting writer or director. Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn) is a sad-eyed local with a hard-knocks past: Alcoholic father, promising career in athletics scuppered by a busted knee, love of fishing poisoned by a long-ago accident... no wonder he's afraid to rock the boat on any level. Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a singer whose heartbreaking voice has taken her no further than gigs on cruise ships and in boondocks bars; her teen daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) is a puppy-fat, stringy haired ball of resentment, perpetually angry at her feckless mom. Sayles surrounds them with a buzzing hive of colorful supporting distractions, but their three-way dance of hope and gnawing apprehension is the main event, and their subtle, graceful performances are a joy. It's a bit of a jolt when Sayles suddenly plunges them into a wilderness adventure, but that's okay. What's not is where it all ends up. There's an argument to be made that the film's ending is the logical conclusion of its notion that everyone's trapped in a limbo of disappointment, uncertainty and paralyzing fear of change. But it feels like a cheap cop out: The cast, and the audience, deserve better.