• Director Carl Franklin elicits naturalistic (which is to say, not cute) performances from his child actors.

With the exception of River East 21, all the Chicago theaters screening Bless Me, Ultima, which opens today, are located way south or way west of downtown. It’s a shame to see the movie marginalized this way, since more than any other American film I’ve seen recently, Ultima evokes the spirit of studio-era Hollywood cinema, which aimed to please general audiences rather than target demographics. Yes, most of the characters are Chicano, but writer-director Carl Franklin (who’s black, incidentally) emphasizes the universal aspects of their story, which he adapted from Rudolfo Anaya’s acclaimed young adult novel. The film tells the story of a young boy’s coming-of-age in 1940s New Mexico, focusing on his spiritual development—as fostered by Catholic educators and an elderly mystic whom his parents take in—and his growing awareness of adult fallibility. These are familiar themes, but Ultima reminded me specifically of To Kill a Mockingbird (both the book and the movie) and Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown in its small-town setting, which comes to suggest American society in microcosm, and its use of a child protagonist to confront complex moral questions.