Having not seen “The Trip to Bountiful” since Geraldine Page won an Oscar for it in the 1980s, a first thought is how oddly similar to “Nebraska” it is — as well as how unusual it feels in this day and age to see a project built around an octogenarian protagonist. Still, when the star is Cicely Tyson, networks occasionally make exceptions, and the allure of seeing this version of the stage revival with a predominantly African-American cast is too good to resist, particularly after Lifetime employed the same formula to fine effect on “Steel Magnolias.”
Though the Horton Foote’s original “Bountiful” was written initially for TV, the main problem with the play-turned-movie, for 21st-century TV purposes, is how little actually happens. And while the screen offers an opportunity to open things up a bit, that doesn’t alter the languid pacing or melancholy tone, hinging on an old woman who wants nothing more than to see the place she grew up one more time before she dies.
Said woman is Carrie Watts, and she’s played by Tyson (a Tony winner in the stage production) with almost manic energy, but also with a sense of loss and exhaustion. “I’d like to recover some of the dignity and peace I used to know,” she says, both qualities having been strained by her living with her respectful son (Blair Underwood) and his snooty wife (Vanessa Williams).
It’s roughly a third of the way in to the telepic’s progress before Carrie embarks on her unscheduled journey, bringing her into contact with several kind strangers, including a young woman on a bus (Keke Palmer) and an understanding sheriff (Clancy Brown).
Counting Bill Haber, Tyson and Foote’s daughter Hallie among its producers, “Trip to Bountiful” already has created side benefits for Lifetime, with first lady Michelle Obama delivering remarks at a screening of the movie. Mostly, though, it’s a showcase for Tyson, who has remained impressively busy in recent years.
That’s not to say this is a particularly great movie (or that the earlier version was, either). Yet as with almost everything else in her storied career, Tyson has finished this “Trip” with her dignity intact.