Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling,” a rural, backwood yarn about a boy who adopts a deer as a pet, goes the remake route in this vidpic, but the absence of true grit and dirt-under-fingernails feeling weaken the believability of the drama.
Scripter Joe Wiesenfeld stays loyal to Rawlings’ themes of life, death and the rite of passage, and Peter Strauss keeps a nice, even tone as family head Penny Baxter.
But Wil Horneff looks too Southern California as the hick boy-turning-man Jody Baxter, who adopts a fawn (he’d shot its mother to get her heart and liver, using them to help cure his dad’s rattlesnake bite. Don’t ask.)
Jean Smart plays Jody’s cold, bitter mom, Ora Baxter, who’s still trying to cope with the death of her other young’uns; there’s not much breadth of emotions in this role, but Smart conveys the stoicism and mean spirit of the woman well enough.
The swampy, Southern forests are captured majestically by David Connell’s camera, and the telepic is strongest when the leads are interacting with supporting yokels. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jarred Blanchard and Brad Greenquist provide “Deliverance”-style tension that’s generally missing from the lead characterizations. Ron Hardy’s direction plays on the emotions of the script, but many scenes are overdramatic, with the actors too often making crying faces with no actual tears in sight.
However, there’s little candy-coating here of what is essentially a sad story about a boy learning that nothing is fair and that death is a constant threat for even the most innocent. In CBS’ “The Yearling,” like the novel and the ’46 film version, death is taken very seriously, and life is not taken for granted. For this alone, despite the glitches, young viewers should be encouraged to watch.