Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:45 - Released 3/12/99

Having a child disappear is probably every parent's greatest fear. Having one killed would certainly be worse in the short term, but at least you know what happened; you can try to move on. In the case of a disappearance, the parents must always live with many unanswered questions: Is he out there somewhere? Is he missing me? Is he happy? Not to mention deciding when and whether to finally give up the search. These questions are all explored with frank realism in Ulu Grosbard's The Deep End Of The Ocean, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams as the parents of a lost-and-found child.

Written by Jacquelyn Mitchard (novel) and Stephen Schiff (screenplay), The Deep End Of The Ocean is a well-rounded film that features fine acting and a script that could have gone for the cheap sentimentality, but is generally more believable than many tear-jerkers of its type. Its ending takes the easy way out, but this is one of few faults.

Pfeiffer plays Beth Cappadora, a professional photographer from Madison, Wisconsin, who is not exactly known for being punctual or responsible (hey, didn't Julia Roberts play this role in Stepmom?). While she is meeting and greeting old friends at her high school reunion in Milwaukee, she loses track of her 4-year-old son Ben (Michael McElroy). Parental annoyance quickly turns to full-blown panic as her ex-classmates are all enlisted to help search, along with local law enforcement headed by detective Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg). A few depressing weeks later, Beth is convinced to go home by Candy and her husband Pat (Williams). Candy reassures her that the search will continue, and she must get home to her other two kids, 7-year-old Vincent (Cory Buck, Mighty Joe Young) and baby daughter Kerry. But she's so depressed she doesn't do much but sleep. She even gives up photography.

Cut to nine years later: After the family has moved to Chicago, a handsome young boy named Sam (Ryan Merriman), whom Kerry (now age 9; played by Alexa Vega) knows from school, comes by to solicit his lawn-mowing services. Beth recognizes him as the long-lost Ben, and soon proceedings are underway to reunite the family. But while Beth, Pat, and Candy are all busy patting themselves and each other on the back, they forget that Sam has grown up in another family and doesn't even remember the Cappadoras. Transplanting him back into the fold is tantamount to kidnapping him all over again, and he's not exactly thrilled. Not to mention that 16-year-old Vincent (now played by Jonathan Jackson), who has become a juvenile delinquent, has trouble dealing with the return of his brother, the prodigal son, the apple of everyone's eye.

There are some excellent performances in this movie, not only by Pfeiffer and Williams, but especially by Jackson as the older Vincent. Though he is not the focal point of the story, he practically steals the show with his complex characterization, full of pent-up emotion and inner conflict. Also effective is John Kapelos as George Karras, the adoptive father Sam had grown to love. Unfortunately, Merriman is not quite as deep in his portrayal of Sam. Much of the film's emotional impact hinges on that role; Merriman could have made it unforgettable, but played his part a little too coolly to achieve that effect.

The Deep End Of The Ocean is hard to watch for the first half hour or so, but its frank script and good performances make it worthwhile. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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