Sentimental poignancy is to Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies what yellow is to bananas: It’s just plain what they are. So it’s a bit surprising that this story of a reunion between a 12-year-old boy and the mother who gave him up for adoption doesn’t instantly dissolve into overripe sweetness. In fact, “Little John” generates its power from its emotional restraint, with Gloria Reuben very impressively keeping her hand hidden even as her character continues to reject the boy. It makes for a last half hour that’s emotional but complex, never opting for the easy sentiment of a greeting card.
Pic begins with rancher John Morgan (Ving Rhames) receiving a phone call: A nun informs him that his estranged daughter Natalie has left her newborn baby boy with the church to be put up for adoption. The nun offers John the opportunity to raise the child, and he accepts, taking it as a second chance to be a good father.
We jump 12 years, and Little John (a nicely vulnerable Robert Bailey Jr.) has grown into a good kid, completely devoted to his grandfather. John, though, is showing signs of illness, and when his sister, Etta (Adilah Barnes), visits from L.A. with news that Natalie has just become a judge, it eventually becomes clear that the time is right for a reunion. John and Little John drive to Los Angeles, with the elder John experiencing a health crisis along the way.
Here’s where the pic could have turned to sheer predictability — even if she doesn’t welcome the boy with open arms (which she doesn’t), the expectation of the genre would be that we could glimpse a burgeoning maternalism in her. We don’t. Reuben captures something deep in this successful, highly professional woman who emanates warmth to all but those close to her, making us continue to care about her character even while she’s outwardly cold to her own son. Director Dick Lowry finds strong visual expression for their relationship, as the two barely touch and are most often shot from a distance.
Writers Temma Kramer and H. Haden Yelin provide Natalie with a romantic interest (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), whom she has also been keeping at arm’s length, and a wise clerk (Patty Duke), so that we continue to believe in her likability even while she behaves cruelly, particularly to her father. The final plotpoint isn’t completely surprising, but it’s been well-disguised, and the fallout from its revelation is superbly executed.
Rhames is putting together an admirably eclectic collection of portrayals, using the opportunities in television to expand his feature hard-ass persona. He’s played a drag performer in Showtime’s “Holiday Heart,” for example, and here he’s a strong, relatively silent, salt-of-the-earth figure with his share of sensitivity and regrets. It’s a performance that wears its sentimentality just a bit too much on its sleeve, but it’s very different from what he’s played before and is certainly convincing.
Chalk another satisfying TV movie accomplishment up to Hallmark, even if the banana turns out not to be purely yellow after all.