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May 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

If people were to watch ”Limbo” without knowing that John Sayles had made it, they might see the film for what it is: an earnest, dogged, squarely rendered wisp of a movie. But Sayles has come to signify all that is honorable and intelligent in motion pictures; I would call him both of those things — and also drab and studied. ”Limbo” is set in Juneau, Alaska (the city is being taken over by entrepreneurs, natch), and for a while Sayles maps out the insular community with likable plainness: the foundering cannery and its workers, the bar where everybody knows your name, the sad-eyed middle-aged ex-fisherman (David Strathairn) with a dark secret and the sad-eyed middle-aged saloon singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) whose teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez) punishes herself over her mother’s litany of loser boyfriends.

The three characters draw together, and Sayles suddenly strands them in an extreme situation. It’s the movie, though, that gets stranded. ”Limbo” turns into family therapy in the wild kingdom, with Sayles relying on storytelling devices he should be ashamed of, like the cut-rate ambiguous trick ending and the old discovered diary that allows the girl to reveal her hurtin’ heart. I got the feeling that Sayles had gone all the way to Alaska to remove himself from the taint of commercialism only to end up forging the very clichés he thought he’d transcended.

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