GEORGIA. Miramax, 1995. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John Doe, John C. Reilly, Jimmy Witherspoon. Director: Ulu Grosbard.

   There are few onscreen performances that I can think of where an actor so intensely takes on the role of the character so as to completely disappear into it. Heath Ledger’s uncannily vicious Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is one example. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia is another.

   In one of the best performances of an actress in 1990s indie cinema, Leigh portrays Sadie Flood, a tortured lost soul who wants nothing more than to be a singer like her talented and successful sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham). She portrays Sadie with such grit, pathos, and tortured anguish that it’s at times almost painful to watch. But I suppose that was the whole point of Grosbard’s direction and his approach to the project. What is more sad – pathetic, even — than an artist who has no real talent, but has all the demons often associated with the tortured musical genius. Alcoholism, heroin, unstable romantic relationships, Sadie’s got them all and more.

   Not Georgia though. Georgia is emotionally distant, cold even. She’s married to the laid back Jake (Ted Levine), lives in her childhood home, and has two young kids. The contrast between these two is evident from the get go.

   But sibling rivalry isn’t the real them of Georgia. The film’s real theme is talent. Who has it and who doesn’t? Can talent be gained or learned or are some people just born with it? Who is more authentic? A singer with pure raw emotion and no talent or a completely talented professional with a cold heart and no real passion?

   Grosbard, who worked extensively with Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, and Robert DeNiro, knows a thing or two about spotting and directing talent. But in Georgia, he leaves the question open-ended, culminating in a final sequence in which the two sisters, at completely different musical venues, perform their own renditions of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”