This predictable she’s-more-capable-than-she-looks telepic about a family of women dealing with mental retardation travels a well-worn path, posted with easy to follow, emotion-tugging signposts that should appeal to die-hard fans of its high profile cast. Susan Rohrer’s chronicle of the transformation of developmentally disabled, middle-aged, unmarried mom Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) is long on angst but short on thematic development, which is not mitigated by an implausible final scene plot twist.
Living in a small California hamlet, Sarah is a gentle, guileless woman/child who is constantly under the protective surveillance of her aged mother Rose (Marion Ross) and her recent college grad daughter, Mary Beth (Kellie Martin). The complications begin when Rose suddenly dies. Mary Beth simultaneously learns she has been accepted into Cornell Medical School and has been declared the legal guardian of Sarah.
The action immediately escalates into a war of wills, pitting Mary Beth’s desire to see her mother achieve some level of normalcy against her Aunt Lila (Diane Baker), a sophisticated Los Angeles art dealer, who insists Sarah needs to be institutionalized, thereby freeing May Beth to pursue her medical studies. The end result is telegraphed from the outset since Sarah exhibits wisdom, insights and learning capabilities that make her eventual emergence a foregone conclusion. And the final, gothic-tinged revealing of the true circumstances of Sarah’s past provides a bit of last-minute texture, but has absolutely nothing to do with the through-line of the plot.
Steenburgen plays at being mentally disabled, but her Sarah lacks the emotional simplicity and spontaneity of someone who supposedly has spent a lifetime cut off from any acquired adult responsibility or sophistication. There is too much calculation and multilevel thought process going on in her words and actions to believe Sarah has allowed herself to be subjugated by her family throughout her life.
Martin (now a series regular on NBC’s “ER”) spends most of this pic with a frown permanently etched across her forehead. She certainly handles all the chores imposed upon Mary Beth with competent viability but does not display enough personality uniqueness to elicit any concern whether she gets to go on with her life or not.
Baker is miscast as the driven relative whose desire to “do the right thing” by way of Sarah belies her guilt at being the principle cause of Sarah’s repressed life. Without completely giving away the production’s 11th hour revelation, Baker cannot be believed to have the relationship to Steenburgen’s Sarah that is designated in Rohrer’s script.
The ever-fascinating Ross is not around long enough to make much of an impact to the proceedings, but she certainly communicates Rose’s terrified concern when it appears Sarah has been lost at a local outdoor fair.
As the masculine satellites to this female centered drama, Nick Searcy is outstanding as Johnny, the low-keyed sociopath who cheats Sarah out of her love and her money, while Chad Christ effectively communicates the casually likable persona of Mike, Mary Beth’s would-be suitor.