A top-flight cast can only do so much with under-drawn characters in “Relative Stranger,” a Hallmark movie so soft around the edges you can practically gum it. Eriq La Salle plays the prodigal son-father-husband who returns after a lengthy unexplained absence, but his motivations in abandoning his family are so thinly sketched out that it’s difficult to decide what an appropriate outcome would be. That’s too bad, since the interaction among the key players occasionally rises head and shoulders above the material.
La Salle plays Walter, a onetime football star whose injury-shortened career is dispatched with a montage of headlines during the opening credits. Years before we meet him, he left his wife (fellow “ER” alum Michael Michele) and young kids (Dana Davis, Carlos McCullers II) on a trip and simply never returned.
Reluctantly, he comes back for the funeral of the stern father he couldn’t please, only to find his children hostile and his wife dating his brother, James (Michael Beach), who has filled his shoes in more ways than one. “All you’re doing is ripping open old wounds,” James tells him, which seems accurate, though their doting mom (Cicely Tyson, a treat even in a small role) keeps prodding Walter to stick around and the kids to forgive him.
The movie was directed by Charles Burnett, and its best moments emerge in the angry exchanges between Walter and James, which probably have more to do with La Salle and Beach’s chemistry than with Eric Haywood’s script. As constructed, James has cause to be angry at Walter for leaving, and Walter doesn’t seem out of line resenting that his brother began boinking his deserted wife, even if his reasons for running out — couldn’t please dad, didn’t want to let down his own kids — dribble out in a manner that’s never fully satisfying. (As presented, the film is appropriately color blind, happy to tell this particular story without raising the issue of single-mother households in the African-American community.)
The movie finally appears content to fall back on the reassuring warmth of family as a panacea, without convincingly resolving its assorted conflicts. Those sentiments would be more comforting, though, if the narrative did a better job connecting the dots from Walter’s estrangement to acceptance.
Given the movie’s modest aims and Hallmark’s narrow formula, the family melodrama here isn’t bad; still, considering the first-rate actors involved, about the best one can say is that everything’s relative.