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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

July 21, 1997:  It's no accident there aren't many movies about abortion (apart from the grisly horror films that are a staple of pro-life agitprop). It's the most uncomfortable of our modern moral quagmires, one that most people, whatever their opinion, approach with reluctance.

True believers on either side like to frame the issue in black and white--it's all about women's rights or it's all about innocent babies--but the majority of Americans see it in uncertain shades of gray.

Citizen Ruth (1997, R), a sometimes shockingly bold black comedy, charges headlong into that murky territory, attacking fallacies and hypocrisies on all sides. The key to the movie is the title character (Laura Dern, in what is easily her best performance), a selfish, self-destructive, drug addict who's only happy when she's listening to her Walkman and zonked out on paint or glue fumes--her wide-eyed excitement on spotting a new line of patio sealant in a hardware store is both hilarious and terrifying.

When she's charged with endangering the life of a fetus she didn't even know she was carrying, she is thrust unwillingly into the center of a debate she doesn't understand or even care about. She's adopted as a cause célèbre first by zealous Christian pro-lifers and then by fervid feminist pro-choicers, sparking a national media event that eventually has little to do with Ruth herself.

The movie arguably splits the difference too neatly with its "both sides are equally unreasonable" stance. But it is daring and unflinching--this is a film not afraid to ask whether all life is really worth living--and there's real power in Dern's unapologetically unsympathetic characterization.

Somewhat less convincing is another recent video, the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk (1997, R). This one's squarely in the pro-choice camp, making the case for legal abortion by telling three separate stories, one set in the 1950s, one in the '70s, and one in the '90s. Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek, and Cher star in the segments, to varying effect (Spacek's is the strongest, both because she's the best actress of the bunch and because her episode feels least like a polemic). The movie is relatively effective as propaganda--Moore undergoes a painful illegal abortion that is almost unwatchable--but pretty hackneyed as drama.

Whether to have an abortion is just one of the tough decisions faced by the young heroine of another film, the terrific British drama Wish You Were Here (1987), which is carried by the exuberant performance of Emily Lloyd. Like Citizen Ruth, it acknowledges the moral complexities of the real world.

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