Holly Hunter has her "Miss Firecracker" character down to the proverbial "T". Every nuance, every glancing look tells us a great deal about Carnelle, a young woman in a small Mississippi town who wants to gain the respect of the local townfolk more than anything else in her life.

To do so she's convinced she must win the annual "Miss Firecracker" contest held on the Fourth of July, just as her older cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) won it some 16 years earlier.

Carnelle has never gotten over being pitied all her life by her older Cousins Elain and Delmount (Tim Robbins), with whom she was raised after her parents died. Then, as a teenager she soiled her reputation by sleeping with every young lad in town, an attention-getting device that is at once a cliche and very truthful.

That's all behind her when the film opens, but it's a very real part of Carnelle's makeup, and though she has tried to summon up the nerve for five years to enter the "Miss Firecracker" contest and gain some self-respect in the process, she hasn't been able to do so.

But this is her last year of eligibility. And she's determined to make a go of it. She isn't just going to be a contestant, however. If she has anything to say about it, she's going to win.

Hunter, who earned an Oscar nomination for "Broadcast News" as the headstrong network news producer and who scored a hilarious portrayal of the baby-hungry wife in "Raising Arizona," is wonderful in this role, which she honed on stage in the off-Broadway play "The Miss Firecracker Contest." (She was also excellent in "Roe vs. Wade," a TV movie that aired Monday.)

And equal to her is Steenburgen, in her meatiest role in years as the former "Firecracker" queen who sweeps into town in all her glory and has no intention of being upstaged by her younger cousin.

Also delightful is Tim Robbins as Steenburgen's black-sheep brother, fresh out of prison and ready to cause a ruckus wherever he goes. Alfre Woodard, as Hunter's dull-witted friend and dressmaker, is played more broadly — perhaps a bit too broadly — but Woodard makes her endearing all the same.

"Miss Firecracker" is a bit uneven, some scenes work better than others. But Beth Henley ("Crimes of the Heart"), who wrote the play and the screenplay, has a real feel for small-town life, and there are many touches here that ring true.

What makes the movie work, however, is the fine ensemble work of the cast.

"Miss Firecracker" is rated PG for some mild violence and a few profanities