Tuned to an inner voice

Surviving pre-teen separation anxiety

Published: May 16 2015, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 12, 1988.
ZELLY AND ME. Music by Pino Donaggio. Written and directed by Tina Rathborne. Running time: 87 minutes. Screening at the 1988 Vancouver International Film Festival.
PRE-PUBERTY AMERICAN STYLE is a time of loneliness, wistful fantasies and separation anxiety. Debuting director Tina Rathborne's Zelly and Me is one such memory of childhood, a cold, bloodless drama set in rural Virginia, circa 1958.
    The memories belong to Phoebe (Alexandra Johnes), an 11-year-old orphan in the care of her wealthy, domineering grandmother, Coco Plainfield (Glynis Johns). For sympathy and understanding, the child turns to Mademoiselle Joan (Isabella Rossellini), the French governess she calls "Zelly."    
    Coco believes that children, like dogs, must be broken before they can be trained. Phoebe much prefers the more loving Zelly, and begins to identify with her nanny's namesake, the martyred Joan of Arc.
    When Coco begins dismissing everyone Phoebe has come to love, imagination becomes the socially isolated child's only form of resistance. Like Joan, she tunes into her inner voices.   
    In an ethereal, often light-headed film, writer-director Rathborne offers a delicate, distant look at a pre-teen's problems. Though veteran British actress Johns is properly frightening as the monster grandmother and Rossellini attractive as the selfless servant, the players all are caught up in a restrictively mannered, mild melodrama.
    Rossellini's Blue Velvet director David Lynch makes his acting debut in a supporting role. He's on view as Willie, Zelly's polite, unassertive suitor.         

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1988. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In an interesting coincidence of casting, Isabella Rossellini's mother, Ingrid Bergman, played the title role in Joan of Arc, the 1948 feature-film adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's Broadway drama Joan of Lorraine (1946). Rossellini and David Lynch became a couple in real life during the making of 1986's Blue Velvet, and their participation was a factor in the independent feature Zelly and Me finding distribution. Lynch was sufficiently impressed with the picture's director, Tina Rathborne, that he hired her to direct two 1990 episodes of his television series Twin Peaks. Rossellini's co-star, Alexandra Johnes, made just one more feature film as an actress, appearing as The Childlike Empress in 1990's The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter.  Johnes found her adult calling in socially-progressive documentary filmmaking, often working with Oscar-winning director Alex  Gibney. In 2013, she added a primetime Emmy (for Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, an examination of child abuse in the Catholic Church) to her growing list of production awards.