From left, James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins star...

From left, James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins star in HBO Films' "Cinema Verite," directed by Oscar nominees Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Credit: HBO Films

In 1971, Pat and Bill Loud, along with their five children -- Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michele -- unfurled their comfortable middle-class lives over a 10-hour documentary that aired a couple of years later on WNET/13. Not all that much happened during "An American Family" -- there were extended scenes, for example, about discussions over mayonnaise -- but Pat kicked Bill out of the house while cameras were rolling, and TV history was made. This film opens on their California dreamin' lifestyle under an endlessly blue Santa Barbara sky, with producer Craig Gilbert (Gandolfini) closing the sale with a hesitant Pat (Diane Lane). He wants "to educate, with real people that audiences can relate to." The pitch to Bill (Tim Robbins) is slightly more seductive: If they don't agree to the cameras, their neighbors will. The kids don't have much of a choice in the matter, especially oldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker), off in New York. But as filming proceeds, rifts develop -- between philandering Bill and straight-arrow Pat, as well as Gilbert and his film crew, Alan (Patrick Fugit) and Susan (Shanna Collins), who decide Gilbert's breaking every rule in the cinema verite handbook.

MY SAY Like 1994's "Quiz Show," "Cinema Verite" demands no prior knowledge on the viewer's part about the real-life TV event that inspired the movie, but a little context can't hurt. For a brief moment in '73, the noise over the Louds was earsplitting, with earnest debates over the Meaning of Them All, and how they were part of seismic shifts in sexual and gender identity, or symbolized the collapse of the American dream. Then, the hubbub died down and -- like pet rocks and leisure suits -- the Louds were consigned to a dusty corner of that decade we'd rather forget. "Cinema Verite" restores their dignity -- Pat's, in particular -- but goes one valuable step further in exploring the relationship between filmmaker and subject. That's the real drama behind the on-screen TV drama, and -- if it's to be believed -- vastly more interesting. Earnest and manipulative, Gandolfini's Gilbert is an embodiment of that guiding principle of quantum mechanics -- that you can't observe something without affecting its history. He can't observe this family without affecting their lives, and you're left to wonder about the nobility of his pursuit. Now 85 and living in the West Village, Gilbert recently told the New Yorker: "The story line [of 'Cinema Verite'] was essentially fallacious." If memory serves, that may have been what the Louds said about "An American Family," too.

BOTTOM LINE Not a dull or wasted moment, and Lane may have just turned in the one of the best performances of her career.


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