By Rory L. Aronsky | April 13, 2006

In St. Augustine, Florida, with $60,000, Lorraine Portman put her formerly one-act play, “Saving Sophie”, to film. With two acts, Portman imparts good-natured humor and amusement in each of the scenes, not only through her words which say many truths about not being afraid to live as you are, but also in comedy only working well when the right actors are at hand, completely untethered.

The Sophie of the title (Kate Daniels) is at her second wedding, the first one devastatingly unsuccessful, when she found her fiancee wearing her wedding dress, in bed with another man. Naturally, her four aunts (Natalie Beltrami, Margaret Kaler, Julie Moss, and Pamela Shook) are compelled to see this wedding through, to make sure their beloved niece is married and sent off into happiness. As a title, “Saving Sophie” is only valid for so long and amusingly turns inward to these four sisters and what their lives currently are. Because as much as they want to “save” Sophie, they have enough to do amongst themselves.

Beltrami, Kaler, Moss, and Shook are the very reasons the quirkiness in “Saving Sophie” becomes even quirkier, as the aunts differ to such an extent that it’s surprising they would even come from the same parents. But there they are. Annette (Beltrami) looks like Edith Bunker stretched to the breaking point of sanity in the largest floppy turquoise hat that’s a challenge for any camera to fully frame, making the old gag of sitting in front of people gleeful once again. She’s happily clueless about the problems other women usually face in life, not at all unsure about anything. It’s the way to be when you can, of course, and she’s one part of a major dynamic among these sisters. In fact, in the church, the sisters are introduced perfectly through the order in which they sit in the pew before the wedding begins, from the stoniest of personalities to the freest.

Staunchly conservative Velda (Kaler) is at the far left with her husband Morley (Gerard Curti) who’s only concerned about when the eating begins at the wedding. She doesn’t want to know anything inappropriate, doesn’t believe in foul words, and certainly doesn’t want her life to be mussed up in any way. Estelle (Moss), the most sexually free of the four, and to the far right of Velda, knows that life isn’t always about doing what’s socially appropriate. There are times when you just have to break out and break away from everything that stands for slowing you down, pounding you into the ground to make you conform. What’s a red dress at a wedding if it makes you, you? That’s how she sees it. Then Marion’s (Shook) right in the middle, fielding the battle from both sides. She’s not comfortable with some of Estelle’s ways, especially later on at the wedding reception where the sisters learn why Estelle actually has carpal tunnel. Then, she’s also a little uneasy with Velda too. And since Morley is next to Velda, completely oblivious to the sisters, Annette, next to Estelle is almost as oblivious, happily ensconced in her own life and her enormous pocketbook at the end of the ceremony.

“Saving Sophie” is also helped by the charmed feelings evoked from watching everything, including the second act which introduces the oddest man in a dog costume at a wake. The song choices, including the opening tune by the Andrews Sisters, are most certainly Portman’s, but she’s not averse to letting her actors have their way in their roles. These actresses have memorable faces which serve them well, especially Kaler who looks like a little like Cloris Leachman in her younger days. Despite Annette, obviously exaggerated for rich comedic purposes, these women truly look and act like sisters. The almost-jovial atmosphere from which all the amusing moments appear is also helped by Rhonda (Christa Longo), a much younger, tomboyish terror who has yet to develop into any of these sisters and may never do so. She represents the undeveloped, untouched personality, from feigned innocence to bratty monstrosity and back again, and surely serves as a reminder of other young holy terrors for those who had those kinds at their weddings. All the women involved in “Saving Sophie”, through their roles, certainly look eager to be in on all these little jokes, anticipating every moment, perhaps even relishing every line they recite. This is one of those close-knit productions where the experience of watching it rises above the amazement at its low budget.

“Saving Sophie” successfully creates unforced comedy and a character study that’s good for the sisters and us. It’s pure enjoyment that wends its way through 80 minutes with a cheerful grin you can sense all the way through. And as freaked as Sophie looks at the beginning of her wedding, her knowing confidence later on can be taken as a sign that “Saving Sophie” will surely find its way. It has that confidence.

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