Despite the powerful but too-brief presence of Julie Harris as her holy-terror grandmother, this is young thesp Jena Malone's vidpic. Malone's solemn-faced, bounce-back Ellen Foster strides bravely through Dickens terrain set in the U.S. in the 1970s. It's an effective and ratings-getting vidpic. Pitiable Ellen, 10, whose mom, Charlotte (Glynnis O'Connor), has died, endures life with her drunken dad (Ted Levine), who slams her around and shoves her in closets. Her maternal aunts, Nadine (Debra Monk) and Betsy (Barbara Garrick), thumb her down in fairy-tale fashion, and Nadine's atrocious daughter, Dora (Kimberly Brown), acts as though she were a minor league Jane Withers teeing off on Shirley Temple.
Ellen does have school chum Starletta (Allison Jones) and her kind parents (Lynn Moody, Bill Nunn); there’s a nifty teacher and her husband (refreshing Amanda Peet, Timothy Olyphant) and, down the road, lost-kids mama Abigail (Kate Burton). But there’s a tough life in between, and young Malone, who narrates in first person, plays it out beautifully.
Nasty grandmother Leonora (Harris), mad with grief, blames poor, passive Ellen for Charlotte’s death and thinks Ellen’s tainted hopelessly with her father’s foul bloodline. Ordered to live at Leonora’s home, Ellen’s there when the old lady collapses on the staircase with a stroke. The good Ellen, of course, tends her, but for her own special reasons.
The characters are reasonably original, and the story’s bound to bring on recognitory nods. Blessed with producer-director John Erman’s style and experience (“An Early Frost” and parts of “Roots” are samples), “Ellen Foster” looks to seize audiences seeking a story with a beginning, a center and an end. Writers Maria Nation and William Hanley write superior scenes, and there’s a true shocker when the old lady maliciously hammers a war decoration to pieces — and coolly forgets the incident.
Harris is terrif, but it’s young Malone’s restrained-but-gutsy interp that catches the eye and ear. Levine’s boozer’s a winner, and Monk and Garrick as the shunning aunts are almost sinfully true to life.
Tech credits are up to the usual sterling “Hallmark Hall of Fame” standards. Brian West’s lensing and Bill Blunden’s editing are strong, and John Morris’ music — particularly the uncredited under-the-titles ditty — is a superior persuader. Fred Harpman has designed a handsome package, and what’s in the box is a genuine heartstring tugger.