September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

All a character has to do is cough or wince for modern movie audiences to get the telegram: Death waits ahead; get out your handkerchiefs. In “One True Thing,” adapted from Anna Quindlen’s canny 1994 novel about an icily ambitious daughter who learns about living from her pre-feminist dying mother, director Carl Franklin cuts to the sad business of fatality with little preamble. One moment Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep) is a passionate homemaker, a Woman’s Day-style domestic goddess inspired in the arts of making mosaics from broken dinner dishes, nurturing children, and ministering to her husband (William Hurt), a charismatic college literature professor.

The next minute, Kate is riddled with cancer, and her 26-year-old daughter, Ellen (Renée Zellweger), has taken a leave from her cutthroat magazine-writing job and haute late-’80s NYC lifestyle–resentfully, at the insistence of the father she idolizes–to move back to her middle-class suburban childhood home and care for the mother whose traditionalism she has regularly disdained. “You’ve got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?” Dad chastises the daughter who takes after him to a fault. In addition to dying gracefully, then, Kate’s final home project is to reintroduce Ellen to her own ticker.

“One True Thing” is a hard sell. Why would anyone choose to sit through something so depressing, so glazed in pop psychology, so like a disease-of-the-week TV drama? The answer, of course, is the gold-plated, non-TV cast, and the opportunity to see famous older performers (Streep, Hurt) and buzzed-about younger ones (Zellweger, Tom Everett Scott as Ellen’s Mama’s-boy brother) share a meal. And they live up to their job of being stars.

It’s a cinch to see why Streep–mother of four and Academy Award winner of two–wanted to play Kate: The big monologue, in which the ravaged woman (her face chalk white, her eyes rimmed red like a Japanese ghost) weeps and rages to get her daughter’s attention, is a Meryl-made moment. But it’s not the virtuoso turns that stand out in “One True Thing,” it’s the lower-key scenes Franklin stages that hold this timely picture together. Streep and Hurt (working with unmannered restraint and mature intensity), dancing for a minute, produce a lovely display of still-erotic marital intimacy. Streep and Zellweger (who possesses that most elusive of qualities in younger actresses, a sense of mysterious depth), side by side in a kitchen, capture the unsalvable itch that exists between mothers and daughters. Scott takes an underdeveloped part and gives it a shape so interesting, I wish we knew more about the underachieving brother.

In the end, “One True Thing” suggests, families can be healed even in loss. This may not be a true thing, but at least this emotional drama offers up hope, sweet like one of Kate Gulden’s tasty cakes.

127 minutes
Carl Franklin
Tom Everett Scott,
Patrick Breen,
Nicky Katt
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