On DVD: Sparkle

Sparkle, written and directed by the team of Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, is hard to pin down. The script is uneven but features good characters and realistically-drawn situations. The performances are mostly solid, but the direction is clunky. The film often feels unsure of its footing, and the PAL video visuals don't do it any aesthetic favors. Yet there is charm here, helped along by good performances and some smart scene-building.

Sam (Shaun Evans) is new to London, and takes a job as a personal assistant to PR maven Sheila (Stockard Channing). He's in his twenties and she's much older. They begin sleeping together immediately, but the relationship isn't going anywhere, even though it satisfies Sam's bloated ego. In addition, Sam's strained relationship with his mother, Jill (Lesley Manville), a single budding singer, has a somewhat Freudian resonance upon his dalliance with Sheila. But an even more important woman is about to enter his life: Kate (Amanda Ryan) is nothing short of Sam's dream girl, and his immediate devotion to her challenges his thinking as to how the other women in his life deserve to be treated. Conflicts naturally arise among and between Sam and the women, all of which contribute to Sam growing into a self-respecting adult.

I liked the characters of Sparkle and their dynamics. Sam is arrogant, but believably and sympathetically so. We know that, like George in The Magnificent Ambersons, or Pip in Great Expectations, he's going to get a comeuppance of sorts, and even though Sam's isn't as painful as the lessons learned by those earlier characters, he does learn humility and comes to see the pain he has inflicted upon others - particularly his mother - through his careless egotism. Shaun Evans always manages keep Sam more or less likeable throughout the film, despite his flaws. 

Sam's relationship with Kate begins with a nice, believably tentative quality, brought on in large part by Sam's guilt and mixed feelings about his relationships with Sheila and Jill. Amanda Ryan is charming as Kate, just as the rest of the cast does an admirable job. Bob Hoskins is on hand as Sam's father figure, a friend of the family who has romantic designs on Jill. And Channing is typically excellent as Sheila, conveying authoritative coldness with a good English accent.

Despite interesting characters and good performances, there are some important things in Sparkle that don't work, like the pacing and the directorial style. Scene transitions are clunky. We are often unsure as to how much time has passed between scenes or sequences. The confusion over these technical transitions is sometimes mirrored by minor but hard-to-track changes in character motivation. Just as important is the strange visual style of the film, which looks like it was shot on video with a very dated television lighting scheme. The movie has that phony "TV" look of EastEnders or other British (and American) television programs. It's a strange choice for a film shot in 2007. 

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