A thoughtful coming-of-age story somewhat in the vein of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Birch Interval has some emotional moments and tender performances, even if the sum effect is underwhelming thanks to an episodic storyline and a general lack of narrative focus. Set in 1947, with events happening in and around the Amish country of Pennsylvania, the movie was directed by the capable Delbert Mann, best known for helming the Oscar-winning Marty (1955), and Joanna Crawford adapted the screenplay from her own novel. Together, these two did a fair job of blending nostalgic atmosphere, the experience of young people discovering grim realities for the first time, and the sadness of watching a loved one plagued by forces beyond his control. So even if Birch Interval fails to achieve all of its goals, the fault does not stem from a lack of sincere effort.
The story opens with young Jesse (Susan McClung) arriving for an extended visit with her beloved grandfather, Pa Strawacher (Eddie Albert)' her eccentric uncle, Thomas (Rip Torn); Thomas’ wife, Marie (Ann Wedgeworth); and Josh (Doug Fishel Jr.), Marie and Thomas' son. Problems soon become apparent. Thomas’ behavior has become increasingly bizarre, even though he’s harmless; he does things like climbing into trees when the mood strikes him. Marie has lost her patience with her husband’s peculiarities, while Pa and Josh merely fret about their inability to provide meaningful help. Woven though this domestic material is an undercooked subplot about clashes between the Amish and local authorities, who are tasked with enforcing rules requiring that Amish children attend public school. In the same way that piece could have been dropped from the picture with no ill effect, the filmmakers would have been wise to strengthen Jesse’s story. She has some colorful and even harrowing adventures, but she’s more like a witness than a protagonist.
Albert anchors the movie well, personifying compassion and tolerance while also expressing the helpless anguish of someone facing an impossible decision—specifically, whether to have his own son committed. Yet the only reason Torn doesn’t steal the picture is that, like his character, he disappears for long periods of screen time. He’s arresting when he's present, missed when he’s not. In the crucial leading role, young McClurg does earnest work, conveying bewilderment in some scenes and a kind of righteous indignation in others.
Birch Interval: FUNKY