Autumn Heart, The (1999): Old-Fashioned Family Melodrama

Sundance Film Festival 1999 (Dramatic Competition)–As literal and schmaltzy as a conventional TV MOW, Steven Maler’s The Autumn Heart is a an old-fashioned family meller about a dying mother and her three grown-up daughters, who still painfully feel the effects of their parents’ divorce when they were children. Big in heart, but small in vision, pic can safely play on Lifetime (or any other Cable channel) without any damage to its integrity. Though decently acted by Tyne Daly, Ally Sheedy and others, there’s no urgent need to see it on the big screen.

Biographical pictures should not be confused with personal or visionary filmmaking as The Autumn Heart clearly demonstrates. Dedicated by scripter Davidlee Willson to the parents of all the filmmakers attending Sundance this year, the movie is a shamelessly manipulative and broad melodrama in which every idea and emotion are spelled out in the most unsubtle manner.

The Thomas household is depicted as a casualty of the 1960s and 1970s sexual mores. Voice-over narration establishes that in 1970, after having three daughters, Ann (Daly) and Lee (Jack Davidson) Thomas gave birth to a fourth child, a boy. Six years later, they divorced and the father left with the son. For 16 years, there was no communication between the two split families.

Things change, when Ann, a school bus driver in Boston, suffers a heart attack and is sent to the hospital. In recovery, she makes one special request, that her daughters find their long lost brother before she dies. Following the tradition of mellers based on eccentric sisters, from Chekhov’s classic to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart to Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune, the daughters represent vastly different personalities and lifestyles. The one thing that unites them–and gives the film a more contemporary veneer–is their streetwise smarts and rough, often profane talk.

Reluctant at first, the trio, headed by Deb (Ally Sheedy), leave the security of their blue-collar neighborhood to fulfill their mother’s dream. What they discover on the other side of Boston’s Charles River is a diametrically opposed milieu. Their brother Daniel (Davidlee Willson) attends Harvard and is engaged to be married to a rich, snobbish girl, and their father is a wealthy man too.

Helmer stages the numerous confrontations and reconciliations in an obvious theatrical manner, milking every sentiment inherent in them. Since the plot–and denouement–are utterly predictable, pic’s main reward is its solid and appealing ensemble, particularly Sheedy, who overacts, but at least brings an edge to the schmaltzy proceedings. A throwback to mellers of yesteryear, The Autumn Heart is a retro, four-hankie picture that might please conservative and undemanding audiences, but its narrative is so commonplace and hackneyed that it raises serious concerns over its very inclusion in the 1999 Sundance dramatic competition.

Tech credits are adequate, but Sheldon Mirowitz’s swollen music provides the kind of emotional support not needed in this particular movie.