`Prefontaine' Poignant Bio Of Oregon Track Star

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XXX "Prefontaine," with Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ed O'Neill, Lindsay Crouse, Laurel Holloman. Directed by Steve James, from a script by James and Eugene Corr. Cinema 17, Everett Mall 1-3, Issaquah 9, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Meridian 16, Metro, Oak Tree, SeaTac North. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of profanity.

After an opening half hour that wavers uncertainly between documentary and drama, this account of the short life of Oregon's proud and temperamental track star Steve Prefontaine transforms itself into the most effective biographical tear-jerker since "La Bamba."

Like that film, it's part nostalgia for a specific period in American history when youthful dreams captured the national attention. Just as teenager Ritchie Valens' fatal plane ride in 1959 eliminated the potential of a rising Hispanic pop-music force, Prefontaine's death at 24 in a 1975 car wreck ended the promise of an adored young star of another field.

Director Steve James and his co-producer and cinematographer, Peter Gilbert, who made "Hoop Dreams" together, clearly share a passion for stories of young athletes who win big and fail big and learn from both extremes. The most poignant aspect of "Prefontaine" has to do with the title character's adjustment to relative failure.

Jared Leto, who was not much more than a heartthrob in "My So-Called Life," deftly uses his good looks this time to comment on the character he's playing. His Prefontaine is a long-haired golden boy with ego so unwieldy that at times it makes him ugly. He shoots off his mouth to the press, betrays a high-school sweetheart and won't let a 9-year-old fan get ahead of him on the track, insisting that "no one is going to stop me" and "I have to win."

There are moments when the movie suggests "Raging Bull Lite," but Prefontaine's monumental drive is also presented here as a thing of wonder, even to Elaine (Laurel Holloman), the girlfriend he dumps. She's a little in awe that he could love something so much. So is the new girl in his life, Nancy (Amy Locane), though why he chooses one over the other is a mystery the movie doesn't explore.

The capable supporting cast is initially held back by documentary-like interviews in which the actors talk about Prefontaine in the past tense. The opening montage of home movies, television footage of the real Prefontaine and these fictionalized interviews is jarring, but gradually several of the hero's friends and relatives sort themselves out and make an impression.

R. Lee Ermey brings his gruff drill-sergeant persona to the role of Prefontaine's trainer, Bill Bowerman, who uses a waffle iron to create his boy's track shoes. Lindsay Crouse is vivid and funny as Prefontaine's German-accented mother, who tries to keep her boy under control while making sure he keeps every newspaper clipping ("Don't wrinkle it; I want it for the scrapbook"). Also effective: Brian McGovern as envious discus thrower Mac Wilkins, and Ed O'Neill as Prefontaine's friend and assistant coach, Bill Dellinger.

The script by James and Eugene Corr (writer-director of the underrated 1985 family drama "Desert Bloom") does a solid job of balancing a potentially confusing parade of characters and track events, though it doesn't dwell long on scenes that might have revealed more about Prefontaine's background and the source of his ambition.

Working on a relatively low budget last summer, the filmmakers used Super 16mm cameras to shoot their European scenes here, employing several local actors in small roles (Bellevue's Robby Burke plays the young Prefontaine in this film, not in the Warner Bros. movie, "Pre," as I incorrectly reported last week). The University of Washington does a mostly acceptable job of standing in for Munich's Olympic Village, though the match-up of McMahon Hall and 1972 television footage of the real thing is less than precise.

Are the final testimonies of acceptance by once-equivocal friends too sentimental? Is it too much that the movie ends with a certain Bob Dylan anthem that's already in danger of being overexposed? Perhaps, but by that point the filmmakers have you where they want you.