September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

Cute kids and crusty codgers figure prominently in this film version of John (The Milagro Beanfield War) Nichols’ semiautobiographical novel. The gifted child actor Lukas (Witness, Lady in White) Haas stars as a bitter 12-year-old forced to leave his California home and live with his grandparents in Vermont when his mother dies and the father he calls Fred goes off to fight World War II. Director Jenny (Street Music) Bowen shows a nice feel for the 1940s period details, but this is a Wiz that has no fizz. The point is to watch as Haas’s frozen emotions thaw in the warmth of a real home. But where’s the surprise in that? Grandpop John Randolph is a kindly small-town sawbones, grandma Anne Pitoniak is a scold with a heart of gold, uncle Lance Guest is always there to play ball, aunt Lea Thompson is an alluring widow capable of stirring the buds of sexuality, and 5-year-old cousin Jeremiah Warner is openly affectionate. Nancy Larson’s script resorts to several desperate devices to grab attention. For a few cheap laughs, young Warner is forced to repeat words he doesn’t understand: “What’s masturbate?” For cheap violence, Warner and Thompson are roughed up by an emotionally scarred war veteran (Dylan Baker). For cheap gush, Haas buries a litter of pet bunnies with crosses made out of ice-cream sticks. For those who flee before the finish, Haas finally calls his father “Dad.” (PG-13)

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