Director Julie Dash’s tribute to the strength of family ties is a bittersweet treat that borders on the maudlin but perseveres thanks to solid performances by its leads, Loretta Devine and Alfre Woodard. Adapted from a short story by J. California Cooper, “Funny Valentines,” the first original production from BET Movies/Starz!3, is a slice-of-life story about surviving and prospering despite adversity.
When Manhattanite Joyce (Woodard) discovers that her husband is having an affair, she packs up her two daughters, Lauren (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Gail (Kajuana Shuford), and heads home to the deep South for some recovery time. Slow-witted cousin Dearie B. (Devine) is trying to cope with her dying mother, Ethel B. (CCH Pounder), afraid that she will once again be abandoned in life, just as when Joyce was whisked off to New York in the summer of 1968. It was that summer that Dearie B. was raped by the local minister’s son, an incident that fractured the harmony of the small, God-fearing community and was later swept under the carpet to avoid a scandal.
Instead of exploiting this story for its sheer dramatic potential, writers Ron Stacker Thompson and Ashley Tyler opt for a tale about healing life’s wounds. As much as Dearie B. is treated as a victim, she is not; Joyce only needs time to realize she has the power to regain control in her life.
Director Julie Dash fosters a real sense of affection for these characters. Like her film debut, “Daughters in the Dust,” Dash provides a lush atmosphere, creating a visual treat with intricate flashback sequences and inviting locations.
Devine plays Dearie B. like a breathless, excited child, a little too giggly, a little too loud, but never pitiable. Too, Devine empowers the character with just the right amount of chutzpah. Woodard, as Joyce, is a perfect fit.
Pounder is a wonderfully powerful presence, especially in the flashback sequences, conveying most of the intense emotion with very little dialogue. The child actors including Echikunwoke as Lauren and Saycon Sengbloh as the young Dearie B., put in noteworthy performances. Technical credits are above par.