Delta Burke and Swoosie Kurtz deliver vivid perfs as Texas sisters avenging the years-ago murder of their sibling in “A Promise to Carolyn,” a harrowing story of child abuse and its aftermath. Jerry London shrewdly directs Scott Swanton’s script, which has detailed characterizations and only a pinch of false sentiment.
Flashbacks to 37 years ago show the three young sisters getting passed between their mother and aunt before ending up with their father and his sadistic wife, Jolene (Morgana Shaw, and Shirley Knight in the present day).
Kay (Kurtz) has never forgotten Jolene’s wrenching brutality, but Debra (Burke) — who, ironically, now runs a day care center — has blocked it out to a degree. (The powerful enactment of the torture campaign against the girls may be too much for some viewers.)
Guilt over Carolyn’s “accidental” death still dominates their lives. Resolve to pursue the matter hardens at the holidays as fragile Debra wants Carolyn’s forgiveness and salty Kay seeks revenge:”I want to see Jolene swinging from a damn rope.”
Referring to both women’s checkered pasts, Debra sums up one aspect of her reluctance:”Who’s gonna give a damn now … especially about a couple of white trash s.o.b. sisters like us?”
A sympathetic detective trusts their memories and gets the district attorney’s attention. After Debra relives the murder under hypnosis, charges are brought and the toddler’s body is exhumed.
Emphasis isn’t on legalities but on Debra’s ability to remember, forgive herself and honor Carolyn. While the decision to point up Debra’s struggle is justified, the psychology isn’t subtle: Shots of Debra’s face are held too long, and movie almost gets lost in her vulnerability.
Burke is a refreshing telepic heroine. Those finding her performance too childlike will be outnumbered by those who identify with her unglamorous persona. Kurtz, who never flags, complements Burke. Shaw, in cat glasses, is chilling as the younger Jolene, and Knight is lurid as stepmommy dearest.