Girl, interrupted

Sheltered sib steps into older sister's shoes.

“IT’S FUNNY HOW sometimes people can have a lot more power over you when they’re not actually there,” muses 19-year-old Phoebe, the shy, troubled protagonist of this somber coming-of-age story based on Jennifer Egan’s 1995 novel, The Invisible Circus. For our introspective heroine (The Faculty‘s Jordana Brewster), living in bohemian 1977 San Francisco, this absent, haunting presence is her effervescent, politically radical older sister Faith (Cameron Diaz), who committed suicide six years before. Growing obsessed with the circumstances that led to this mysterious death, and despite the protests of her gentle, level-headed mother (Blythe Danner), she rashly embarks on a leftist jaunt through Europe, retracing Faith’s doomed path.

The Invisible Circus

written and directed by Adam Brooks with Cameron Diaz, Jordana Brewster, Christopher Eccleston, and Blythe Danner opens February 2 at Meridian

Phoebe hopes that her reenactment will uncover how the benign anarchism of Faith and her boyfriend Wolf (Shallow Grave‘s Christopher Eccleston) escalated from pacifist pranks on Cambodian-killing corporations to hooking up with Germany’s notorious gun-toting, bank-robbing Red Army. (We glimpse these events in flashbacks that punctuate Phoebe’s travels.) To that end, Phoebe enlists an initially reluctant Wolf to help reconstruct Faith’s fatal voyage through Amsterdam (complete with an irrelevant, hokey acid trip), France, Berlin, and finally Portugal—where Faith supposedly flung herself from the cliffs. A mildly creepy romantic tension evolves between the two (years apart in age), and their awkward union becomes an unlikely yet cathartic catalyst for finding out “what really happened.”

While Phoebe’s worshipful yet naive relationship with her dead sister is well worth examining in a celluloid context, conveying the nuances and inconsistencies of her quest is a formidable task. Previously the screenwriter of Beloved and Practical Magic, director Adam Brooks also has the added burden of creating plausible European settings for both the ’60s and ’70s. Yet despite the potentially engaging storyline he adapts from Egan’s novel, Circus achieves only lukewarm results.

Don’t blame the performers—particularly Brewster, who exhibits a relaxed and uncontrived restraint that could put her on the same playing field as Sarah Polley and Chlo렓evigny. The appropriately over-exuberant Diaz is a logical casting choice (with the notable exception of having her portray her character at the ludicrous age of 12 in one sequence); Eccleston is fittingly brooding and conflicted by his cross-generational lust. But the distinct lack of depth and detail to Circus‘ potentially compelling themes—the deceptive, dreamlike world of childhood memories, the unique grief of loving someone eaten alive by their own idealism—dampens the redemptive tone that Brooks aspires to achieve.