Slow-rolling as molasses and earnest in the extreme, “Plainsong” is Hallmark lite, a genial enough production with so few sharp edges as to blunt its dramatic resonance. Nicely acted and cast, it’s nevertheless a movie with such a tepid message — namely, “family” is whatever you make it — that this 219th presentation under the company’s storied “Hall of Fame” banner probably doesn’t have a right to be as good as it is. Ultimately, though, it can’t measure up to the expectations of its franchise, falling somewhere in the 120-to-150th-best range.
Set in a small Colorado town, “Plainsong” introduces a number of characters wounded in different ways who, inevitably, find sanctuary in each other. There’s stalwart teacher Tom (Aidan Quinn), whose chronically depressed wife leaves him, trying to right himself while caring for their two young sons. Then there’s Maggie (Rachel Griffiths), tending to an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father.
Victoria (America Ferrera of “Real Women Have Curves”), is a pregnant high school student abandoned by her mother. Two eccentric brothers (Geoffrey Lewis and William Andrews), at Maggie’s urging, awkwardly agree to take the girl in and, in the process, discover new reservoirs of feeling. Finally, there is the aging shut-in (Marian Seldes) befriended by Tom’s maternally deprived boys.
As adapted by Oliver Goldstick (from Kent Haruf’s novel) and directed by Richard Pearce, the story evokes elements of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” minus the trial. The genial Tom must even reckon with a thuggish bully, played by grown-up “Home Improvement” kid Zachery Bryan.
It’s such familiar territory that one can’t help but admire the skill with which it’s been put together, beginning with the standout performances by Ferrera, Lewis (afforded a rare nice-guy role) and Andrews, by far the most interesting triangle within this multi-sided tale.
By contrast, Quinn’s solid citizen and Griffiths’ longing co-worker aren’t as compelling as they could have been, as if some key ingredient was left out of the formula. It’s to the actors’ credit, in fact, that the audience feels inclined to root for them at all given how little foundation is set for their implied connection.
To a degree, “Plainsong” is a victim of Hallmark’s own high standards — a solid enough little movie that doesn’t approach highlights such as “Promise” or even its most recent predecessor, “The Blackwater Lightship.” Against that backdrop, “Plainsong” is simply a bit too plain to stand apart.