Based on Kaye Gibbons’ novel, Ellen Foster is the story of a young girl who is shifted from one home to another due to the death of her mother and the abuse she suffers from her father. Directed by John Erman and teleplay by Maria Nation and William Hanley, the TV movie revolves around a girl trying to find a home and someone to care for her as Jena Malone plays the titular character. Also starring Julie Harris, Ted Levine, Glynnis O’Connor, Zeljko Ivanek, Bill Nunn, Amanda Peet, and Timothy Olyphant. Ellen Foster is a harrowing yet heartfelt melodrama from John Erman.
Ellen is a young 10-year old child living in the South during the 1970s as she lives poorly with an alcoholic father Bill Hammond (Ted Levine) and her ailing mother Charlotte (Glynnis O’Connor), who is suffering from rheumatic flu. After Charlotte’s death, Ellen remains at home living by the money she gets from her uncle to pay bills and food that she can get. Though she was invited to stay at the holiday at the home of her friend Starletta (Allison Jones) and her parents (Bill Nunn and Lynne Moody), they couldn’t adopt her. While her father remains gone for days and her well-meaning aunts looking after her, she remains alone as her father eventually returns to beat her as her art teacher Julia Hobbs (Amanda Peet) notices.
Living temporarily with Julia and her husband Roy (Timothy Olyphant) before the court figures out what to do, Ellen seems to enjoy her new family life until her father arrives outside her school leading to a court case on who would get custody. Though the judge was sympathetic to Ellen’s plight, Ellen is forced to live with her grandmother Lenora Nelson (Julie Harris) whom Ellen never really liked. Despite being cared for by Lenora’s maid and dealing with her grandmother, Ellen was able to have a home until Lenora suffers a stroke. Ellen is once again shifted to another home as she’s given to the care of her aunt Nadine (Debra Monk). Ellen, once again, feels unloved as she’s forced to deal with her bratty cousin Dora (Kimberly J. Brown). Realizing that her only salvation could be in a woman (Kate Burton) that is a foster parent, Ellen wonders if she will ever be taken by a family who loves her.
The TV movie is about a young girl whose broken family life has her shifted from one home to another where she finds herself lost and seeking for someone to care for her. While there’s a few people in young Hobbs couple, an African-American family, and an ideal foster mother that cares for this young girl. This young girl is forced to be shifted to homes to people in her family that don’t really care about her while others might consider her to be a burden which includes her flighty aunt Betsy (Barbara Garrick). Throughout this journey in trying to find some home and family that will take care of her, she eventually change her last name from Hammond to Foster to exemplify what she had just gone through.
While the teleplay does dwell into heavy melodrama because of the girl’s plight along with a few characters that are essentially stereotypes due to its 1970s Southern setting. The script does succeed in exploring the plight of what this young girl through as it’s told largely in her perspective with some voice-over narration that reflects what she’s going through. Yet, Ellen is a child that just wants to be loved and earn her keep as she is forced to contend with superficial aunts and a very spiteful grandmother. Even worse is the law that complicates things as she wants to be with the people that will care for her who aren’t able to due to the law or to their own circumstances.
John Erman’s direction definitely has a few stylistic flairs though he keeps things very straightforward to what is expected in a TV melodrama. Erman does know how to shoot intimate moments or to set a mood while having his camera focused on Ellen in the situations she’s dealing with. While the melodrama is expected to be very sentimental and at times, heavy-handed, it some how manages to go way into that due to what the protagonist is going through. Overall, Erman’s work is stellar as he does create a very engaging drama.
Cinematographer Brian West does a nice job with the photography from the darker world of Ellen‘s original home to more low-key yet colorful shots for the homes that she goes into to exemplify the different homes she encounters. Editor Bill Blunden does a very good job with the editing to maintain a leisured pace with a few dissolves and straight cuts to keep the film going.
Production designer Fred Harpman and set decorator Lin MacDonald do some excellent work to create the look for the different homes that Ellen encounters from the posh home of her grandmother to the more natural yet carefree environment of the Hobbs. Costume designer Linda Matheson does a wonderful job with the costumes to help develop the batch of clothes that Ellen wears in her journey from casual, dirty clothes to more cleaner and fuller dresses late in the film. Sound editor Joseph Melody does a fine job with the sound work to capture some of the intimate moments as well as some of the livelier moments involving multiple characters. The music by John Morris is pretty good for some of the orchestral arrangements though at times, it gets a bit sappy and saccharine with the addition of the harmonica in the score.
The casting by Stuart Aikins, Olivia Harris, and Phyllis Huffman is brilliant as the ensemble cast that is created definitely gives the TV movie more than what is expected in the genre. Performances from Zeljko Ivanek as a school doctor, Kate Burton as the kindly foster mother Abigail, Bill Nunn and Lynne Moody as Starletta’s very caring parents, Allison Jones as Ellen’s best friend Starletta, Kimberly J. Brown as Ellen’s bratty cousin Dora, and Glynnis O’Connor as Ellen’s ailing yet loving mother are all really good. Other roles include Ted Levine as Ellen’s abusive father along with Debra Monk and Barbara Garrick as Ellen’s superficial though caring aunts are notable standouts along with some very lively yet fun performances from Timothy Olyphant and Amanda Peet as a young couple who temporarily take Ellen in.
Julie Harris is excellent as Ellen’s grandmother Lenora who is very spiteful towards her as she believes that her daughter’s death is due to the environment she chose and for bringing Ellen into the world. Finally, there’s Jena Malone in a truly outstanding performance as the titular character. Malone’s performance is definitely the heart and soul of the film as she has to endure a lot of anguish and torment for what she’s going through as her character just wants someone to care for her. It’s a performance that truly exemplifies why Malone was so revered in her early years as a child star as she continues to be one of the most interesting actresses working today.
Ellen Foster is a very good TV movie by John Erman that features a remarkable performance from Jena Malone. While it’s a film that does play by the rules of what is expected in a TV melodrama, there are elements that does give the movie something more to exemplify what this young girl goes through. In the end, Ellen Foster is an engaging TV movie that brings a very compelling tale of child abuse and abandonment.
© thevoid99 2011