In terms of TV movies, Oprah Winfrey brings something very important to the table these days. Her imprimatur as “presenter” means that, no matter how apparently refined the source material, it will have an emotional, accessible core. The deeply poignant “Amy and Isabelle” represents a case in point. This is primarily an internal story of one woman’s coming out of a self-built shell, and would normally be too subtle, too uneventful a tale to carry a telepic. But, with a particularly strong use of a voiceover narration that leans to the literary, and with an exceptional performance of great clarity by Elisabeth Shue, this ABC made-for hooks beautifully into its character-driven story from the start and only gets better and better as it moves toward its simple, satisfying, heartfelt ending.
Lloyd Kramer (“Before Women Had Wings”) adapted the novel by Elizabeth Strout and also directs, and he brings to “Amy and Isabelle” the patient tone of an independent film. Set in New England in 1971, the story takes us into the lives of upright single mom Isabelle Goodrow (Shue) and her shy 16-year-old daughter Amy (Hanna Hall, who bears a strong resemblance to Drew Barrymore). Isabelle works in an administrative capacity at a mill, where she barely mingles with her talkative co-workers and pays close heed to her married boss Avery (James Rebhorn). Isabelle, apparently a widow, also frequents her church with absolute regularity, although there too she has difficulty engaging in conversation.
From Isabelle’s narration, we gather the contradictory sources of her introversion. She looks down on her workmates, who talk of sex and drugs and other things uncouth, but feels illiterate compared to the more socially proper women at church. She also becomes concerned that her own daughter, who loves poetry, is ashamed of her. She keeps a tight leash on Amy, particularly because a girl has recently disappeared only two towns away from their small community of Shirley Falls.
Amy, however, chafes under this claustrophobic life. Amy draws the attention of the new math teacher, Peter Robertson (Martin Donovan), and she begins to encourage his interest in her. When Isabelle discovers that her daughter isn’t as innocent as she’d thought, it throws her world into disarray. While at first she lashes out at Amy in a truly harrowing scene, she soon after begins her journey of self-discovery that allows her to open up to those around her and reveal her secrets.
Shue and Hall are both superb, delivering restrained but highly affecting performances. Kramer keeps the piece highly focused without ever letting it become melodramatic, which gives the playing a simmering potency. Eric Edwards’ photography, Clark Hunter’s production design and Scott Chestnut’s editing are all first rate, and they help create a complete milieu, a small town America that’s not as pure as it may seem, from its polluted river to the menace of sexual crimes. Ernest Troost’s music tends toward the sentimental, but it works extremely well in counterpoint to the inhibited emotions of the characters.