review by Gregory Avery, 1 December 2000

Walking down the passageways of a Catholic grade school on Long Island, the majestic Angela (Stacey Halprin) leads young Bruno (Alex D. Linz) by the hand while his classmates at school, who seem alarmingly lax in discipline, take the opportunity to throw the usual juvenile epithets, mostly regarding Angela's size. Angela, in the way she moves, looks like someone you would not want to mess around with -- her stride is determined and steady, as if powers great and small might reside in her, waiting to jump out. But one of the kids' crude remarks gets to her, and for an instant she just can't help herself: she stops and looks back, with the expression of someone who would like to get a break for once and can't. Then she quickly pulls herself together. "Ignore them," she tells Bruno, and they get into Angela's huge yellow car, with license plates that read "DIVA," and drive off, but not before Angela gives in just a little bit to her emotions, and pulls the car around just far enough up on the curve to throw a real good scare into the little kids with their little, stinging remarks.

The sight of Angela melting, in spite of herself, under the kinds of circumstances many of us had thought, or hoped, were left behind in school is one of the most affecting things about Bruno -- which marks Shirley MacLaine's debut as a feature film director (and which is getting its U.S. debut on the Starz channel this month) -- and Stacey Halprin's performance is remarkable not just for the way she allows herself to be shown as a "large woman" in the film, but also for other points such as the way she expresses herself, how her character reacts to the way people treat her and how she compensates for it. She shows great paternal love towards Bruno, a kid who's just a little bit smaller than the other boys at school and, because of that plus the fact that he can't defend himself, gets piled on a lot. Bruno is bright, but not especially aggressive. Angela, on the other hand, seems sparring for a fight with the woman (Joey Lauren Adams) whom Angela's husband (Gary Sinise) left her for. Adams, stuck in a one-dimensional b-queen role, doesn't seem like much of an attraction; Sinise, on the other hand, who seems draped in melancholy in the picture, doesn't seem like much of a loss. But Angela's need to have him back in her life, even if the two of them aren't particularly suited for each other, is palpable and movingly depicted.

Part of Bruno is about how people habitually find ways to pick on other people for no good reason (or all the wrong reasons). The picture is also about how the title character wants to wear a dress. It has something to do with a dream he has, with quite possibly some Divine inspiration mixed in. With his upbringing in the Catholic faith, he sees the outfit not as women's clothing but as "holy rainments," and he argues this point vociferously. "The Pope wears a dress!" he tells the Mother Superior (Kathy Bates) in charge of his school, and who has a framed photo of John Paul II on her desk. Nonetheless, it drives everyone bananas, except for Angela, who not only accommodates Bruno but is an expert seamstress, and Bruno's new friend Shaniqua (Kiami Davael), a young girl who always comes to class wearing her school uniform, a bright red cowboy hat, and holsters with two toy pistols (and who may also be having some troubles at home which are only murkily alluded to). When one of the boys makes a crack about Shaniqua's skin color, Bruno clobbers him.

Bruno, Angela and Shaniqua are all outsiders, and the point of the movie is that people should be allowed to express who they really are in any way they wish. Except for his dream, Bruno's apparel decision doesn't seem to have anything to do with his identity one way of the other, except for the fact that he simply wants to do this. However, he has been spending lots of time studying the dictionary so that he can compete in a series of Catholic school spelling bees that culminate in a national contest and an opportunity for the winner to have an audience with the Pope. Bruno participates in the event wearing a dress. Does it cross anybody's mind in the film that he may want to make an exception on what he wears just for the competition, so that all his hard work won't be for nothing? No. Bruno wearing a dress and competing in the spelling bee are meant to be concurrent victories.

Unfortunately, Stacey Halprin's character is sidelined at the movie's halfway point, and MacLaine herself barrels right in as Bruno's grandmother, who wears men's style trousers, shirts, and outer coats, and dares anyone to say anything about them. She supports him and teaches him how to put up his dukes, so there's little doubt as to how things are going to turn out. Bruno shows up at the national spelling finals wearing a Western outfit and wig that makes him look like a combination of Dolly Parton and Dale Evans (and, I am afraid to say, Jonbenet Ramsey, a distinction which I hope was unintentional).

MacLaine shows an aptitude for directing and working with actors: Alex D. Linz gives a winning, smart, chin-up portrayal of Bruno, and Kathy Bates is a hoot during scenes such as the one where, in private, she wearily genuflects, saying "Oh, popi, popi...." to her photo of the Pope, before turning it face-down before producing a cigar and lighting it up. But the film belays its most interesting aspects in favor of ones that are more pleasing, easier, and reassuring, even if they end up seeming forced. We know who all the bad guys are, which characters we are supposed to root for, and what sort of message we're supposed to come away with from all this. In other words, the film turns out to be not nearly as brave, fearless, and daring as Bruno himself is.

Directed by:
Shirley MacLaine

Alex D. Linz
Stacey Halprin
Gary Sinise
Joey Lauren Adams
Jennifer Tilly
Kiami Davael
Shirley MacLaine
Kathy Bates

Written by:
David Ciminello





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