Friday, August 24, 2007

Saving Sarah Cain; Raising Helen: various films explore involuntary family responsibility


It seems as though Tinseltown gets a subtle point in the cultural wars. Family responsibility doesn’t always wait for procreation of baby making. It can be thrust upon relatives at will and morally demanded of them.

The recent Fox Faith film Saving Sarah Cain, recently shown on Lifetime (dir. Michael Landon, Jr., son of the “Little House on the Prairie” star who died in 1991) makes the point well. A young female syndicated columnist in Oregon has writer’s block and an ambivalent boy friend when she gets a call from Pennsylvania, where her sister had married into an Amish family. She travels there, and learns that under Pennsylvania law, as the closest living relative, she automatically gets custody of the five kids. (She can refuse and let the state take them into foster care, a horrible choice it seems.) She takes them back to the City, and sets up the conflict for the rest of the movie.

An earlier film along this line had been Raising Helen (2004, Touchstone, dir. Garry Marshall, who was one of the judges in Fox’s “On the Lot”). In that movie, Helen, the heroine, is single while one sister is married and expecting, and another dies and leaves custody of the kids to Helen. “Why” becomes a riddle of the story.

This idea had been explored in TheWB series “Summerland” (starting in 2004, from Aaron Spelling) where fashion designer Ava (Lori Loughlin), living on the beach in California, “inherits” her sisters three kids after a car wreck in Kansas. The oldest boy, Bradin (Jesse McCartney) becomes an accomplished surfer. The series features a broken wedding with a middle school principal later.

One of the most harrowing films about involuntary family responsibility was “One True Thing” (1998, Universal, dir. Carl Franklin, novel by Anna Quindlen) when an English professor (William Hurt) drafts his own career daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) to give up her own life, her own romance and career to take care of her breast cancer stricken mother (Meryl Streep) and “live her mother’s life” setting up the legal confrontation at the end.

Then there is Ian Polson’s CBS film “Going Home” (2000, dir. Ian Barry) where a career woman goes back home to take care of her Dad with Alzheimer’s, and has to bargain with her sister who scoffs her for not being married.

Another variation of all this comes from Minnesota filmmaker Jon Springer’s “The Hymen’s Parable" (1999, Cricket Films) where a priest has to deal with his own personal dislike of a mentally ill sister.

Even soap operas are getting into this act, as on NBC-Corday’s “Days of our Lives” good guy “Nick Fallon Carraway” (Blake Berris) is duped into marrying a tramp in Las Vegas and winds up responsible for kids (of an opposite race) that he did not father. (In the Sept 18 episode, Nick winds up with the super-geek "opposite race" kids, who talk about chess openings -- weird -- permanently. Remember, Nick has fathered no children himself. He gets a new job as a school teacher and seems like a good role model.)

And even the independent film "September Dawn" about the massacre of pioneers by renegade "fundamentalist Mormons" on September 11, 1857 in Utah, has a plot twist that involves "other people's kids" left from childbirth death, common on the frontier, with a love story between one of the Mormons, Jonathan (Trent Ford), who is kind of the Nick Carraway of the story, and settler Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) that gives its "Romeo and Juliet" setting a surprising final twist. This movie does explore religious issues around the purpose of salvation by grace.

(For a discussion of Chris Gorak's "Right at your Door" visit this link.)

March 14, 2008


Another film along these lines comes from new indie distributor Overture Films, "Sleepwalking," (dir. Bill Maher, from Canada) where Nick Stahl plays an impoverished young man who tries to take over raising his niece when his sister (the girl's mother, played by Charlize Theron) abandons her.

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