This real events-inspired installment of “The Wonderful World of Disney” exemplifies the courage and determination required of a true hero. Touted as inspirational, Loretta Claiborne’s story is exceptional, even if the movie isn’t. And the message — one of overcoming the odds with the healing power of family, teachers and friends — is perfect subject matter for a family film.
“Beloved’s” Kimberly Elise stars in the title role but shares a good portion of screen time with Emmy winner Camryn Manheim. Pic spans a good portion of the mentally challenged athlete’s life. Director Lee Grant starts this tear-jerking tale in 1996 with Loretta Claiborne winning the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1996 ESPYs, then flashes back to York, Pa., in 1962.
Loretta, born mildly retarded and partially blind, did not walk or talk until she was 4 years old. Raised by single working mom Rita (Tina Lifford), along with five siblings, Loretta had no choice but to try to keep up with everyone else. In one scene, Rita holds a piece of toast over Loretta’s head and says, “If you want it, reach for it.” It’s an attitude and theme that we will see often throughout Loretta’s life.
Loretta grows up frustrated by her limitations, and scribe Grace McKeaney doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that her physical setbacks are also hampered by a volatile temper that eventually gets her kicked out of high school and fired from a court-appointed job. Encouraged to run early on by a beloved teacher, Loretta returns to the sport via the Special Olympics with the help of Janet McFarland (Manheim), her feisty new social worker.
The battles don’t end there, however, and after competing in the Boston Marathon, Loretta is kicked out of the Special Olympics on a technicality, only to be reinstated later by S.O. founder Eunice Shriver. With her confidence and desire fueled by athletic accomplishments, Loretta goes on to learn Russian for the 1987 Special Olympics games and becomes an eloquent public speaker.
Elise does a solid turn as Claiborne, capturing both her determination and, at times, extreme frustration while resisting the Hollywood mandate that says mentally challenged persons should be played as an opportunity for scenery chewing. Manheim as her case worker does the tough-as-nails but really tender-hearted bit by the book and is overshadowed by the regal Lifford, who plays Loretta’s touchstone and mother.
Pic falters in the smaller details, with some aspects of Loretta’s story tied up too neatly (we see Loretta give an old high school foe her comeuppance in what appears to be a completely manufactured scene), while others issues are unresolved. Although Loretta was one of six children, the film ignores all but her adored older brother Sam (Damon Gupton) and her often jealous and malicious sister Christine (Nicole Ari Parker). The script also avoids racial issues that might have affected Claiborne but earns points for addressing sibling rivalries and the cruelties endured by the mentally challenged.
Helmer Grant covers 30-odd years of Loretta’s life, packing in quite a bit of information at a palatable pace, but too often playing into the melodramatic overtones of McKeaney’s script. Lensing by Laszlo George is rich, although the merging of real news footage with the fictionalized version gives the film a strange hybrid look. Other tech credits, including appropriately inspirational music by Stanley Clarke, are of the highest quality.