“The Ballad of Lucy Whipple” has the structure of a series rather than a TV movie, providing a full season’s litany of episodes with the thinnest narrative thread to hold them together. Fortunately for CBS, the unifying force for this sprawling storytelling is Jena Malone, and there are certainly moments when she and star-executive producer Glenn Close help this made-for, set in early California, strike tiny nuggets of gold. But there’s no sustained drive to this supposed ballad, and tonally it feels uncomfortably caught between a picture for young adults, like the novel upon which it’s based, and a film for an adult audience looking for a bit more gravity.
The model for this kind of material is Mark Twain, and “Lucy Whipple” wants to locate his precocious charm in its central character (Malone), at the beginning called “California” but later insisting on changing her much-hated name to Lucy.
The story begins when Lucy and her family, led by the strong-willed Arvella Whipple (Close), arrive in the tiny town of Lucky Diggins.
The Whipple family has journeyed from Massachusetts so that the widowed Arvella can run the town’s boarding house, whose tenants consist of unmannered miners.
From the start, Lucy hates the town, particularly because it doesn’t have a library. Over time, though, the local characters begin to grow on her, and she finds a close friend in Annie (Olivia Burnette), a girl who spends her time in a retreat of twigs in the woods.
From here, the episodes begin. There’s Lucy the imaginary detective, for example, who after hearing a storyteller (an under-utilized Meat Loaf Aday) relate a fictional tale of murder, pursues her suspect, only to discover a different secret.
Then there’s Lucy the lawyer, who defends Annie’s mom in a slapdash trial lead by a raggedy judge (Wilford Brimley).
The overarching narrative is a far more vague one: Lucy’s coming of age — a throughline captured only superficially in Christopher Lofton’s teleplay.
Lucy is forced to confront plenty of tragedy along the way, including at least two deaths that give the story an occasional heaviness its flaky sense of reality doesn’t quite deserve. And the whole endeavor has a particularly silly combination of fake wholesomeness and fake grittiness.
Lucy frequently butts heads with her equally stubborn mom, and these are the project’s best scenes, with Malone and Close mining these characters for all they’re worth. And Robert Pastorelli gives a likable performance as a churchless minister who becomes Arvella’s love interest.
Filmed in Utah, “Lucy Whipple” is certainly picturesque, with lots of shots from lenser Neil Roach that resemble early American paintings. For the first third or so, editor Michael Economou and director Jeremy Kagan struggle to find a comfortable rhythm to the storytelling, in part because they clearly try to inject more of Close when the real center is Malone, and there are some noticeably out-of-place shots and sequences.
The going gets better later on, but despite the work of the lead ladies, the effort as a whole remains firmly in the realm of the mediocre.