By Ralph Novak
Updated November 20, 1989 12:00 PM

Sean Astin, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Quill

Achingly well-meant and deftly acted, this film about three brothers in a South Carolina town oozes noble sentiments.

When it comes to the movie’s impact, however, the decisive factor is how cataclysmic you find the demise of a little family chicken restaurant.

Even by the movie’s terms, the event seems a tragedy of minor proportions. When their father, Jim (48 HRS) Haynie, fed up with the chicken business—”Chickens are just rats with a good reputation”—sells out, Astin, Mulroney and Quill are hardly left destitute. Mulroney and Quill, the two eldest, both seem to have the intelligence and ambition to go to college or find substantial careers, and Astin, still a teenager, has plenty of time to readjust his life. So what seems to be—according to the way debuting screenwriter Monte Merrick and director Lee (Tell Me a Riddle) Grant handle it—the dramatic focal point of the film appears more trivial as the plot moves on. The biggest distraction in the last half of the movie, in fact, is a bizarre romantic triangle involving Mulroney, Daphne (Gross Anatomy) Zuniga and Keith Szarabajka, who plays Zuniga’s fiancé. Zuniga pursues Mulroney up to and past her wedding, with only a lame explanation about wanting a husband for security and a boyfriend for sex.

Astin, 17 (son of Patty Duke and John Astin), Mulroney (Young Guns) and Quill (Hamburger Hill), while they hardly look at all alike, strike up a real fraternal camaraderie. Melinda (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) Dillon gives a strong performance as the boys’ mother, balancing her loyalties to her husband and her sons.

Haynie, Stockard Channing, as a local politician who has a fling with the much-younger Quill, Sheila Kelley as a single mother with whom Quill has an undefined relationship, and Dinah Manoff, as a sexpot waitress, are all very human and as convincing as the script allows them to be.

Put this same cast together on another occasion and you’d have one for the annals, but next time let it be an occasion that matters a little bit. (R)