June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez

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Alaska, where talented writer-director (Lone Star) John Sayles has set his twelfth film, is a place people often go either to get away from something or to find themselves—sometimes both. If you wander too far away in bad weather there without proper gear, the elements can kill you in minutes. But if you stay inside too long, you may just go “shacky wacky,” as the locals put it.

In Limbo, an intriguing if overly deliberate character drama, Sayles’s characters come up against both themselves and the elements. Mastrantonio plays a singer and single mom who heads north, teen daughter (Martinez) in tow, looking to change her luck. Strathairn plays a fisherman who has put his emotional and professional life on hold. Just as these two embark on a tentative romance, Limbo abruptly shifts gears, depositing mother, daughter and beau on a deserted island where they must depend on each other and their wits to survive.

Mastrantonio and Strathairn both do wonderfully complex work here. She shows off a lovely singing voice while he continues to demonstrate why he’s the thinking woman’s sex symbol. But Limbo always seems a trace too self-conscious, as if Sayles had gone through his script with a yellow highlighter making sure all the symbolism (watch for fish references) is in place. (R)

Bottom Line: Lovely performances but not quite up to full Sayles

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