TV movies are dead, you know. They don’t make them anymore. At least not the traditional ones, not the ones, say, about single mothers with cancer, or single mothers with daughters who get cancer. Those are just so ’70s. Someone, though, forgot to tell that to ’70s icon Marlo Thomas and CBS. “Two Against Time” tells the story of a single mother and her rebellious teenage daughter who BOTH get cancer, and it’s filled with one absurdly cliched, and highly affecting, scene after the other. Admirably capable of exhausting a year’s supply of tissues in a single sitting, this telepic will be a miracle cure for fans of this shamelessly sappy genre in its death throes.
Director David Anspaugh (“Rudy”) does a strong job of setting up the specifics of the generic mother-daughter relationship. Julie Portman (Thomas) is a hard-working single mom who will do anything for her kids. Her teenage daughter Emma (a strong Ellen Muth) doesn’t appreciate that, alas. She just wants her mom to leave her alone, even if that means allowing her to skip school and smoke pot with her boyfriend.
Casey Kurtti and Peter Nelson’s teleplay really does come off at the start like a class in Mother-Daughter 101. Then it becomes a class in Cancer Diagnosis 101. Along the way, the piece certainly does generate power with these basic tools.
There’s one scene that pretty much says it all, both how silly the film is, and how appealing it is in its silliness. After Emma has been diagnosed with cancer, she tries to drive off with her boyfriend after school rather than let her mom take her to the hospital. In the school parking lot, Julie blocks her daughter’s path with the family station wagon (she’s a single mom, what else would she possibly drive?) and gives a big-time soliloquy, making it very very VERY clear that nothing will stop her from getting Emma to the doctor. Thomas gives it her all, milking this mixture of Mother Theresa and Mommie Dearest. And it works.
Once Julie also comes down with cancer, everyone involved can keep the raw sentimentality at bay for only so long. And once Anspaugh and Thomas let it out, it’s a deluge. It’s a parade of sweet reconciliation scenes and everything’s-going-to-be-all right-no-it’s-not scenes between mom and daughter, who wear a series of different wigs.
The film stops creating more emotional steam well before it ends, and the through-lines dealing with Julie’s unresolved issues –anger at her late mother, letting herself be loved by a good guy (Joe Penny) — don’t work at all. For the last half hour, all the movie does is bathe everyone in the pretty stifling sauna.