When 'The Big Chill' came out, many critics seemed to forget that John Sayles (making his directorial debut) was there first with a lower-wattage, less pretentious, and better-written (if not always better-acted) study of a group of former college radicals dealing with adult life ten years later.The title refers to the group’s name for itself after they got busted in Secaucus, New Jersey. The reunion takes place at the small New Hampshire house of unmarried couple Mike (Bruce MacDonald) and Katie (Maggie Renzi). Others in the group include drug counselor Jeff (Mark Arnott), who’s just broken up with actress Maura (Karen Trott); aspiring country singer J.T. (Adam Lafevre); political aide Irene (Jean Passanante), who drags along new boyfriend Chip (Gordon Clapp); med-school nurse Frances (Maggie Cousineau); mechanic Ron (David Strathairn), who never left town; and Howie (Sayles himself), the only one to have started a family.
The film is sometimes awkward, no doubt due to the necessity for minimal camera set-ups (the budget was $60,000), and a few of the performances are amateurish — including, oddly enough, David Strathairn, who would later unlearn the De Niro mannerisms he relies on too heavily here.But mostly this is the sort of small-scale, sharply observed character drama Sayles’ admirers know and love.