NEW YORK (CNS) — Peter Wunstorf’s sumptuous cinematography, which wonderfully evokes the South Carolina Lowcountry setting of “The Beach House,” can’t, unfortunately, salvage this otherwise lackluster TV movie. An installment in television’s longest running anthology series, the “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” the film debuts on cable’s Hallmark Channel Saturday, April 28, 9‚Äì11 p.m. EDT.
Author and Palmetto State transplant Mary Alice Monroe and veteran actress and South Carolina native Andie MacDowell executive produced the movie, which is based on Monroe’s best-selling novel. Longtime film and TV director Roger Spottiswoode (“And the Band Played On”) directs from Maria Nation’s script.
MacDowell also takes one of the lead roles, Lovie Rudland. She’s surprised, as the movie opens, by a visit to her beach home by her 30-something daughter, Cara (Minka Kelly, “Friday Night Lights”). Licking her wounds from having been fired from her prestigious and lucrative advertising job, the Chicago denizen avoids telling her mother about her reversal of fortune.
Lovie, for her part, guards a more serious secret: She’s dying of cancer. She has also taken into her home an unmarried 20-year-old pregnant woman, Toy Sooner (Makenzie Vega). Lovie provides Toy with a safe haven while Toy helps Lovie contend with her health crisis.
Though Cara is initially confused by — and somewhat resentful of — Lovie’s affectionate relationship with Toy, her concern about her brother Palmer’s (Donny Boaz) treatment of their mom draws the women closer together. Raising a young family in nearby Charleston, Palmer has always resented his “Yankee” sister for moving away, and leaving him and Lovie holding the bag.
Despite Palmer’s showy protestations that he has his mother’s best interests at heart, because of Cara’s intervention, Lovie discovers that her son is only, in fact, looking out for himself. Desperate for a scheme that will turn his financial luck, the crass Palmer becomes a figure the women mutually dismiss because he, in Lovie’s words, “wears his street shoes in the sand.”
Lovie’s caring defense of the sea turtles that migrate to the beach each summer to lay their eggs deepens the bond between mother and daughter in an unexpected way. Reconnecting with the place she knew as a child, and confronting her mom’s mortality, Cara adopts Lovie’s turtle cause, which she had earlier rejected.
Her mother’s nickname for her, Caretta, which, Lovie explains, is the scientific name for “the world’s largest hard-shell turtle,” takes on renewed meaning for Cara as Lovie’s time grows short.
Other than the storyline involving Toy’s pregnancy — into which a pro-life message can reasonably be read — “The Beach House” doesn’t feature any problematic elements. In keeping with Hallmark’s commitment to family programming, the movie is refreshingly free of the violence, sex, nudity and profanity which too often prevail on TV. It makes suitable viewing for adults and adolescents.
Given its storytelling’s admirable restraint, however, it’s unfortunate “The Beach House” isn’t more praiseworthy.
MacDowell’s Lovie will naturally engender sympathy from the audience, but viewers will feel merely neutral toward Kelly’s bland Cara. The actors don’t connect, and moments such as the women shepherding the wayward migrating turtles consequently don’t move viewers as they should.
Other plot elements aren’t plausible. Viewers likely won’t believe Lovie can hide her disease from her children. When Cara asks her mom about the pills she’s taking, Lovie insists they’re vitamins without further scrutiny from Cara. And Palmer, who has more contact with his mom, appears completely oblivious.
Even minimal questioning from the siblings would have led them to deduce the obvious.
Lovie, moreover, doesn’t appear sick throughout much of the movie, and at one point the terminally ill woman sprints into the titular house as if she’s on fire to tell Cara about the turtles’ arrival on the beach. Only toward the end does Lovie appear somewhat gaunt, and viewers may conclude she’s the healthiest looking dying person they’ve ever seen.
While it doesn’t pretend to be high art, since 1951, the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” has consistently produced programs designed to lift viewers’ spirits, making them feel better about our common humanity. That’s a rare and desirable commodity in our deeply divided, cynical age. “The Beach House,” however, sadly fails to live up to the venerable anthology’s standards.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.