Some kids want to run away to join the circus, or as the heroine of My Girl decided, to run away and join The Brady Bunch. In Digging to China, Harriet (Evan Rachel Wood) wants to run away so badly that she tries to get abducted by a UFO so that she can be anywhere but 1960’s rural New Hampshire. Living with her caring but maddeningly alcoholic mother Mrs. Frankovitz (Cathy Moriarty) and twenty-six year old flirtatious sister Gwen (Mary Stuart Masterson) in the motel that the women earned in a divorce settlement, Harriet longs for adventure and when she’s unable to get it by trying to escape, she decides to use her imagination and ingenuity in a wide variety of failed experiments such as a balloon chair and other attempts. Her flights from reality take a backseat with the arrival of thirty year old mentally impaired Ricky (Kevin Bacon) who shows up to stay at the hotel en route to an institution by his sickly, aging mother Leah (Marian Seldes) who worries about what will happen to her son after she has passed away.
Despite their twenty year age difference, mentally and emotionally Ricky is on the same page as the ten year old Harriet and the two become fast friends whose limitations and worries are lessened as they begin to find confidence and hope even after Harriet is faced with an overwhelming and unexpected tragedy. However, the rest of the world isn’t as forgiving of a grown man spending time with an impressionable child and Gwen tries to separate the two which inspires Harriet’s escapist tendencies once again when she and Ricky go on the lam to live the life of boxcar children until they must return.
While it’s easy to dismiss as what Maltin referred to as a “one note” premise, it’s compassionately told and startlingly well acted by Wood in her screen debut as well as by Bacon that recalls at times I Am Sam. Winner of two film festival awards, actor Timothy Hutton’s likable debut as a feature film director was written by the talented screenwriter Karen Janszen who also penned quality family films Duma and Gracie.