Rosie O'Donnell brings her considerable wattage as producer, co-writer and star to "America," an unabashed message movie about the plight of kids in foster care -- seen through the prism of one unlucky youth symbolically representing them all.
Rosie O’Donnell brings her considerable wattage as producer, co-writer and star to “America,” an unabashed message movie about the plight of kids in foster care — seen through the prism of one unlucky youth symbolically representing them all. The finished product succeeds in delivering a stark portrait of a failing, overburdened system, but not quite a fully realized story. It’s nevertheless a stronger drink than Lifetime regularly serves, and for those determined to look on the bright side of things, a big improvement over O’Donnell’s recent variety special.
Based on a book by E.R. Frank derived from her experiences as a social worker, O’Donnell, whose larger-than-life personality often obscures that she’s a pretty talented actress — an outsized turn in her last made-for, “Riding the Bus With My Sister,” notwithstanding — takes a key but relatively minor role. She’s Dr. Maureen Brennan, a therapist trying to help 17-year-old America (newcomer Philip Johnson, in a refreshingly natural performance), a sullen youth whose initial response to her questions is simply, “Read my file.”
But the file, alas, conveniently skips over central aspects of his brief but sordid biography, which instead trickle out in eerie but uncomfortable flashbacks presenting a younger America living with a kindly foster grandma (Ruby Dee) and creepy foster uncle (Timothy Edward Rhoze). Meanwhile, America struggles to adjust to life in the group home, where he quickly wins the affections of a girl (Raquel Castro) but also gets into fights and exhibits obvious discomfort letting anyone get close to him.
Director Yves Simoneau (“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), O’Donnell and veteran TV movie scribe Joyce Eliason deal sensitively with the issues of abuse, but the story feels rushed in places — juggling, as it does, a transparent mandate to pound home its political point and still try to tell this one particular tale. Perhaps that’s why the movie itself doesn’t so much end as simply run out of time.
As if there were any uncertainty about the motivation, O’Donnell spells it out in voiceover narration and a closing crawl, calling such forgotten, neglected kids “America’s children” and citing the dire future they face without intervention and assistance.
So while “America” earnestly wants to open our collective eyes, what it mostly does is remind Americans struggling to avoid a Depression of one more arena about which they have ample reason to feel thoroughly depressed.