Familiarity may breed contempt, especially when it comes to child actresses who ham it up in Pepsi commercials. ABC’s third adaptation of William Gibson’s Tony-winning “The Miracle Worker” desperately needs viewers to buy precocious, curly-haired tyke Hallie Kate Eisenberg as the young Helen Keller. It’s an iffy proposition, especially if you are old enough to remember Patty Duke’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1962 Arthur Penn-helmed version.
What the project has going for it is a pure, graceful performance by Alison Elliott (“The Wings of the Dove”) as Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan, and an equally strong team of support players that includes David Strathairn as Helen’s father, Lucas Black as her half-brother James and Kate Greenhouse as her mother.
With the exception of a few unnecessary flashbacks to Sullivan’s troubled childhood, Monte Merrick’s script sticks closely to William Gibson’s original play.
We meet the troubled Keller family, who have given up hope of their blind and deaf daughter being anything but a spoiled savage who grabs, scratches and manipulates the household and is even allowed to attack everyone’s plates with her bare hands at meal times.
When Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, arrives to be Annie’s live-in teacher, she decides to teach the child how to use sign language done against the palm of her hand.
But first, she needs to battle the Kellers themselves, who would rather see their daughter grow up as a wild creature than resort to disciplinary measures. It’s always easier to succumb to the child and give her whatever she demands, rather than make the effort of establishing simple boundaries.
One of the strengths of the drama is the subtle way it underlines all the different undercurrents of tension in the Keller household. Lucas Black, who played the young boy in “Sling Blade,” holds up his own as Helen’s jealous brother who doesn’t agree with his parent’s complacent ways.
The last ten minutes of the film, during which Sullivan finally manages to reach her student, carry a strong emotional punch and leave the viewer appreciating the value of discipline paired with compassion.
Although miscast, Hallie Kate Eisenberg does her best with the challenging role of Keller. Her acting is fine, but viewers who are familiar with her face and contemporary attitude will have a hard time buying her in this 19th-century incarnation.
David Parker’s sun-bathed photography does a fine job of dressing the Canuck backdrop as Alabama, circa 1887, and William Goldstein’s music accompanies the plot elegantly. All other tech credits are also superior. Let’s just hope ABC doesn’t air too many Pepsi blurbs during the breaks.