A gifted writer's short stories often make more effective movies than densely layered novels, and perhaps that's why "Jolene," based on a 30-page story by E.L. Doctorow, works neatly onscreen.

The only limitations of the film, adapted by Dennis Yares and directed by Dan Ireland, stem from the episodic nature of the original story. "Jolene" is seeking distribution, and while it won't set the boxoffice on fire, it deserves attention for its performances. It's playing at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Doctorow's "Jolene: A Life" follows the exploits of an unfortunate but resilient young woman over a 10-year period as she wanders across the country. She begins as the 15-year-old bride of a Southern hick, lands in a reformatory, then endures more failed relationships before she ends up in Hollywood, looking a lot older than 25 but still dreaming of brighter prospects.

Because there isn't a strong narrative to link her disparate adventures, the film's success grows from the vividness of individual scenes and performances.

Ireland has a gift for casting, and he has another find in Jessica Chastain, who can seem simultaneously childlike and womanly, vulnerable and hard-edged; even when she's embroiled in the most sordid encounters, she always retains our sympathy. And Ireland has surrounded her with a superb supporting cast including Dermot Mulroney, Theresa Russell, Frances Fisher, Rupert Friend, Chazz Palminteri and Michael Vartan.

The film is technically accomplished, but it would benefit from some careful pruning. This picaresque tale dawdles a bit, but Chastain keeps us rooting for Jolene's survival. (partialdiff)