Marlee Matlin broadens her repertoire with a showy portrayal of a woman who’s not deaf in a TV movie based on a precedent-setting legal case; Melissa Gilbert stays within her established range as the lawyer who … well, who doesn’t help very much at all.
Carrie Buck (Matlin) was subject of a 1927 Supreme Court decision allowing involuntary sterilization of mentally deficient women. Story follows Buck from her placement in a Virginia “feeble-minded colony” through resolution of case.
Melissa Prentice (Gilbert) is an upper-class Virginian, soon to be one of the country’s few female attorneys of the era. At the time, Brian L. Ross’ efficient script tells viewers, Prentice was clerking with Adam White (Peter Frechette), attorney aiming for political office as well as Prentice’s affections.
Her line of reasoning for preserving the lineage of the mentally deficient doesn’t make much sense. Still, she persuades White to take on Buck’s case, in which he winds up fighting Prentice’s uncle (Pat Hingle), a prominent physician who has already sterilized as many as 100 women.
This being Lifetime, Prentice is the hero, though she and White flub things wherever possible: plucky Prentice helps Buck escape from the facility, resulting in the patient’s placement in solitary, and White loses the case.
Always an appealing actress, Gilbert keeps a stiff upper lip throughout, as Matlin and Hingle munch on the scenery. Frechette is wooden under John David Coles’ otherwise sharp direction.
Lensed in various North Carolina locations by Ron Fortunato, film looks especially good, with Frederic C. Weiler’s production design heavy on the earth tones.
Card at the end of the film tells audience that Buck’s daughter, born before the start of the story, made her school’s honor roll, and that a geneticist testifying in favor of sterilization of the “inferior” was subsequently honored by Nazis for his work.