The 232nd production under the Hallmark Hall of Fame banner, “The Russell Girl” looks fabulous for its age. A tear-jerker of epic proportions, the CBS original doesn’t lay on the drama so much as unearth it.
Amber Tamblyn stars as Sarah Russell, a young woman who, upon learning she has leukemia, impulsively returns to her small hometown before facing her arduous treatment regimen. Home, viewers soon learn, is a place Sarah has avoided for some time. Her parents (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Tim DeKay), while concerned and supportive, seem tenuous and out of touch with their daughter. The Morrisseys, the Russells’ estranged neighbors, also appear strangely unnerved by Sarah’s sudden return, especially Lorraine (Jennifer Ehle), whose ongoing anxiety and headache problems escalate.
Sarah isn’t quite sure how to break the news of the diagnosis to her family. When she learns she’s been accepted into Northwestern’s medical school — a long sought-after goal — she loses her nerve completely; she’s torn between telling her new secret and confronting an old problem, knowing, somehow, that it’s an important first step in her eventual treatment.
Sarah’s repeated attempts to engage neighbor Lorraine make it clear, however, that Sarah’s return has triggered memories of a horrible accident years earlier. Neither, it seems, has fully dealt with the incident. Sarah’s unassuaged guilt has left her believing she somehow deserves her recent troubles, while Lorraine’s misplaced anger has affected her relationship with her husband and two teenage sons.
On paper, writer Jill Blotevogel’s script is standard TV melodrama, but Tamblyn’s deeply expressive performance, along with that of Tony-winner Ehle, creates believably heart-wrenching emotions. “The Russell Girl” proves Tamblyn can carry a film. Ehle, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep, is as good onscreen as onstage.
Supporting perfs are well done and key to the overall story, especially the father figures eloquently portrayed by DeKay and Henry Czerny. Paul Wesley as Evan, Sarah’s old flame, is a little too good to be true but is a charismatic match to Tamblyn’s Sarah. Mastrantonio is not well served in the role of Sarah’s mom, whose misguided optimism and cheerleading is the opposite of what Sarah actually needs.
Bleckner’s deliberate pace, paired with Charles Minsky’s lingering camera shots, make for a thoughtful and beautifully filmed piece. The musical score is equally affecting. Film is exasperating at times only because it so accurately depicts the common inability to express one’s true emotions.