Someone’s got to keep alive that TV movie staple, the old-fashioned true-life tearjerker with a contemporary social message. Sure, the networks will still take these on every once in a while amid their true crime tales, light romances, bestseller adaptations and special-effects minis, but for the most part, this kind of issue-driven project has emigrated to cable, where a film without a whiff of marketable controversy might as well premiere on Mars (or, more likely, Venus). Lifetime’s “What Makes a Family” certainly doesn’t break, or even strain, any molds, and it’s not particularly nuanced in presenting legal argument, but it’s well-executed all around and makes its emotional point effectively.
In a strong, unglamorous performance, Brooke Shields stars as Janine Nielssen, a nurse who falls in love with Sandy Cataldi (a terrific turn by stage vet Cherry Jones). Although Janine is hesitant, held back by lingering self-doubt and her family’s continuing disapproval of her lesbianism, Sandy convinces her that they should have a baby, and through artificial insemination Sandy conceives and gives birth to Heather.
Immediately thereafter, however, Sandy becomes ill with lupus (lesbianism and fatal illness — now we’re talkin’ telepic!). For five years, Janine does her best to care for both the deteriorating Sandy and the growing Heather (a very expressive, photogenic Jordy Benattar).
Sandy dies without leaving a will, and Janine finds herself a legal underdog when Sandy’s previously supportive folks Evelyn (the ever-reliable Anne Meara) and Frank (Al Waxman, who died Jan. 18) sue for custody. The grandparents win the first round, and, in a wrenching scene, Janine hands over her daughter and then lapses into an emotional breakdown. When she recovers, she decides she won’t stop fighting to get Heather back and enlists the assistance of lawyer Terry Harrison (Whoopi Goldberg) to make the argument that family is not only defined by blood relations –the fundamental thematic issue at stake and the basis for the telepic’s title.
The case, from Florida in the ’80s, is probably an anomaly, since made-for makes the point numerous times that Florida is the one state where gays and lesbians are outlawed from adopting. This story makes an effective counterpoint to the more famous, more recent and exceedingly disturbing Virginia case, turned into an ABC pic starring Vanessa Redgrave and Valerie Bertinelli, in which a grandmother won custody over her own lesbian daughter.
There is, of course, no question where this telepic stands; it’s exec produced by the nation’s most famous liberal, Barbra Streisand, along with others. But the straightforward teleplay by Robert L. Freedman, the very fluid direction of Maggie Greenwald and the surprisingly affecting work by Shields don’t beat the political drums so much as focus on the emotional moments one at a time. Every once in a while, there’s a forced beat, but on the whole, this pic has a subdued honesty that endows it with poignancy.
Tech credits are excellent.