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"Close-Up' is a gripping drama

When Margaret Toll is killed in an automobile accident, her 15-year-old son David, who witnesses the crash, becomes obsessed with trying to make sense of her death, watching and rewatching the home videos he made when she was alive. The movie is Extreme Close-Up, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on WFLA-Ch. 8, and director Peter Horton said it was the hardest thing he's ever done. But the trade magazine Entertainment Weekly gave the movie its highest advance rating, an A-plus.

The story was written by Horton's thirtysomething colleagues, executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Like that series, it has sensitive camera work and music Horton said he particularly likes.

What makes the movie technically challenging is its use of film and video techniques as David, played by newcomer Morgan Weisser, tries to figure out what happened to his mother. Then he begins taping his classmates and teachers with a videocam hidden in his knapsack, a move that boomerangs when his geometry teacher kicks him out of class.

His high-school counselor, who fails to understand him (she insists he "put this experience behind you" and makes him keep a behavior chart), calls in his father, who agrees with her that he's living through video images and not in real life.

"Technologically and dramatically this film was the most difficult thing I've ever undertaken, trying to tie the film and tape," Horton said.

"The way it's laid out, there's three worlds: The present-day film and the present-day video and the tape on the past. For example, you'll see Laura (his girl friend, played by Samantha Mathis) and David walking toward us, and you immediately cut to David's point of view on the camera.

"Weaving those worlds together was the hardest thing I've done. It's trying to find ways of setting up which world we're in without insulting the audience: making it clear, making it graceful, and still telling the story; trying to shoot the video as a home movie, making it look like home video so it doesn't look like professionals have done it. In a home video, the camera is no longer an objective observer; it's a character."

Blair Brown (Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) plays Margaret Toll, and Craig T. Nelson is David's father, Philip, an architect and urban planner who tries to hold his family together in the only way he knows how: structure, discipline, "a system," he tells them.

He's grown alienated from his oldest son: "You were hers, Steve was mine and Melissa didn't seem to need anybody. I used to ask your mom how you were doing instead of asking you. Now I guess we've got to take care of each other."

Kimber Shoop plays David's brother Steve, and Ellie Raab is Melissa Toll, his sister. Their squabbling seems typical; they still take family vacations. But gradually something seems wrong. David's camera catches their cheerful mother in moments of pensiveness, then confusion, hearing voices and sounds.

Nelson, who has worked in stand-up comedy and stars in ABC's Coach, gives one of his better performances to date as Philip Brown, who tries to understand his troubled artist-wife.

Young Weisser turns in an impressive performance of wide range as David Toll, a teen-ager trying to work out his problems, establish a new relationship with an understanding classmate and find new ground with his father.