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JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN, THE

              

From the Sept. 27, 1985, Deseret News

THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN — Meredith Salenger, John Cusak, Ray Wise; rated PG (violence, profanity)

"The Journey of Natty Gann" isn't particularly different from a lot of survival-on-the-road pictures, which is to say its script seems to generally follow the rules for this genre. But it's the crafting of the story here that makes it a cut above the norm.

Meredith Salenger is the Natty Gann of the title, a tough young street girl in Chicago during the Depression, living with her father (Ray Wise) who is desperately trying to find work, as are most men at the time.

Then, one day, the father gets a good job offer as a logger in Washington state – but he has to leave today! He is unable to find Natty to tell her, so he leaves her a letter and asks his landlady (Lainie Kazan) to watch out for the youngster, promising to send for her as soon as he can.

As is expected from the first frame, Natty soon hits the road to find her father — hitchhiking, jumping boxcars and generally bumming her way across the country. When her father discovers she has taken off, he is naturally distraught and tries to find her.

Meanwhile, though the film cuts back and forth between Natty and her father, the focus is squarely on the 15-year-old's adventures during her journey.

The weaker aspects of this story have her befriending a wolf, so that it turns for a while into a moderately entertaining girl-and-her-dog yarn, and a series of just-miss coincidences between Natty and Dad, which seem a bit too contrived.

But when "The Journey of Natty Gann" works — which is most of the time — it works very well. The story largely unfolds in vignettes as Natty finds herself in an orphan prison, is befriended by various characters on the road, hijacks some steers with a group of homeless hoodlums, etc.

The subplot with the wolf tends to turn the events more toward fantasy, which is OK I suppose, though it's a bit of a contrast with the gritty realism of many scenes.

The performances, however, are peerless throughout, including John Cusak ("The Sure Thing") in a supporting role quite different for him, and Lainie Kazan and Scatman Crothers in appealing cameos.

Meredith Salenger is a new face, a teenage actress in her first film, and she brings a naturalness to the proceedings that is quite refreshing.

The photography is gorgeous, with frequently breathtaking location shots of nature's beauty, and Jeremy Kagan's direction (he also did "The Chosen") is crisp and matter-of-fact, managing a minimum of sentiment.

And that latter aspect really makes an unexpected difference when you consider that this is a Walt Disney production. For the most part, the people here seem to be real people, which is a tremendous improvement over just about every film that comes along these days with teenagers as central characters.

"The Journey of Natty Gann" is a good film, not a great one — but good, solid family fare is so rare these days that it becomes a minor event and a particular treat.

It is rated PG for a profanity or two and some violence.