Based on Karen Cushman’s novel, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple tells the story of a widowed mother and her three move to California from New England in the 1850s during the Gold Rush. The eldest daughter herself as Lucy as she tries to adapt to her new surroundings while dealing with her mother. Directed by Jeremy Kagan with a teleplay by Christopher Lofton, the TV movie is a coming of age tale as well as a period piece set at a time when California was a new world for Americans. Starring Glenn Close, Jena Malone, Chloe Webb, Robert Pastorelli, Bruce McGill, Meat Loaf Aday, and Wilford Brimley. The Ballad of Lucy Whipple is a good, heartwarming period drama from Jeremy Kagan.
After the death of her husband, Arvella Whipple (Glenn Close) goes on a journey from Massachusetts to California during the Gold Rush. Taking her three kids including her eldest daughter California (Jena Malone), son Butte (Michael Welch), and Prairie (Celeste Leary) to a small town that is run by Jonas Scatter (Bruce McGill). For Arvella, she hopes it’s a chance to start over though California has already begun to dislike the town, which is still in development. Meeting various eccentrics including a miner named Amos Frogge (Meat Loaf Aday) and a part-time prostitute named Sophie (Chloe Webb). The only person California befriends is a lawyer named Carrots (Dennis Christopher) who lends her his books.
With Arvella and her kids helping out in the town’s development, California renames herself Lucy as she meets a young girl named Annie (Olivia Burnette) who lives in the forest as she teaches her to read. A new town arrival in a preacher named Clyde Claymore (Robert Pastorelli) arrives to spread the gospel though Arvella isn’t keen on his ideals. Even as Lucy’s dislike for the town suddenly progresses into her liking the place more and more as she gets to know various locals including an androgynous cowboy named Buck (Judy Gold) and a Negro who she renamed Bernard (Neblis Francois). Though the tension between Arvella and Lucy is still evident over the decision to move.
Following a tragic event that shook up the entire Whipple family, Lucy uncovers more secrets about the town including Annie’s family where she meets Annie’s father (Dalin Christensen) as she learns why Annie lives in the woods. When he’s later found dead by the river and Annie’s mother (Elaine Kagan) is accused as she’s judged by the town’s deputy sheriff (Wilford Brimley). Lucy defends her as Arvella realizes what value Lucy has with her book reading. When Clyde makes a decision for his future with Arvella, another conflict with Lucy and Arvella emerges with the two unsure what to do next.
The TV film is essentially a mother’s plan to start over in a small Californian town in the 1850s while her eldest daughter isn’t happy about the decision. What happens is that it becomes a world where California becomes Lucy and finds herself being a part of this new world she’s living in despite some troubles and tribulations she would deal with. While her mother is a headstrong woman desperate for a new life and Lucy is a dreamer who wants to help teach people to read or use her knowledge for good. There is tension between the two women despite their similarities but their relationship is the heart of the film.
Director Jeremy Kagan does create a faithful period piece with some wonderful camera angles and wide shots of the landscape which is really shot in Utah. Since the script is a coming-of-age tale with elements of melodrama that is the norm of most TV movies. Kagan does play by the rules of what is expected though at times, it gets a little dramatic while there’s a scene where there’s a cheesy special effect happening that doesn’t really work. Despite the flaws the TV film has for its dramatic elements and conventional storytelling, it is still a solid TV film from Jeremy Kagan.
Cinematographer Neil Roach does an excellent job with the photography from the sunny, green look of the Utah landscapes as California to the dark nighttime scenes for many of the exteriors. The interiors also have a great look for the daytime scenes while it’s more intimate and sparse for the nighttime sequences in the tent. Editor Michael Economou does a very good job with the editing that is mostly straightforward in its approach to cutting though at times, the pacing lags a bit in a few spots.
Production designer Stephen Altman and set decorators John Bucklin and Anthony Maccario do a phenomenal job with the set designs from the period boarding houses that are created along with the tents. Altman’s work is truly amazing to watch in the design of those houses along with the objects created for the TV film. Costume designer Van Broughton Ramsey does a superb job with the costumes . From the cowboy clothes and pants that the men wear to the dresses the women including the yellowish dress that Lucy wears at times as the costumes help bring authenticity to the TV film.
Sound editor Joseph Melody does a nice job with the sound work from capturing the atmosphere of the town to the little noises such as gunshots, horse neighs, and other objects. Music composer Bruce Broughton does a good with the music playing to the old time folk music of the times though there’s moments when the score tends to overwhelm the drama in some scenes.
The casting by Jeff Johnson and Mary Jo Slater do a wonderful job with the casting with its large ensemble. Notable small performances include Elaine Kagan as Annie’s mother, Dalin Christensen as Annie’s abusive father, Charles Gruber as Arvella’s late husband (via photo), Celeste Leary as Lucy’s youngest sister Prairie, Dennis Christopher as a lawyer Lucy befriends early in TV film, and Judy Gold as the androgynous Buck. Other memorable small roles include Neblis Francois as the black man Lucy befriends name Bernard, Michael Welch as Lucy’s younger brother Butte, and in a cameo of sorts, Wilford Brimley as the town’s deputy sheriff.
Olivia Burnette is very good as the gritty though uneducated Annie who befriends Annie as she helps her get food while learning how to read in return. Legendary rock singer Meat Loaf (under the Meat Loaf Aday name) is excellent in a comical role of sorts as a man looking for gold while having a great scene where he tells a legendary story. Chloe Webb is really good as Sophie, a woman who is a part-time hooker but with a heart of gold as she helps out Arvella and Sophie in their duties. Bruce McGill is also good in a fine role as a town mayor who makes sure what is happening with the town and such. The late Robert Pastorelli is wonderful in his role as the preacher Clyde who helps to sooth the soul of the town while befriending Lucy and Arvella.
Glenn Close is superb as Arvella Whipple, Lucy’s mother who is a headstrong woman wanting to start over and create something for herself and her children. Close plays the character straight while being a bit comical at times as she truly revels in playing a free-spirited yet adventurous woman who loves her children including Lucy despite their differences. Finally, there’s Jena Malone in one of her finest performances as the title character of California “Lucy” Whipple. Malone exudes all of the character’s troubles to adjust not just to her new surroundings but also having to find ways to use her knowledge and love for books for something. Even as she is often in conflict with various people including Close as the two have great chemistry in the characters they play. It’s a truly outstanding performance from the young actress that would play to her evolution as one of cinema’s great young actresses.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple is stellar yet touching period drama from Jeremy Kagan featuring top-notch performances from Jena Malone and Glenn Close. While it’s a formulaic TV movie that does have strengths in its story along with a wonderful cast. It’s also a coming-of-age film that plays true to the way mothers and daughters interact along with their differences. Fans of Jena Malone will no doubt see this film as one of her essential performances while fans of Glenn Close get a chance to see the famed actress in another memorable performance. In the end, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple is a very good TV film from Jeremy Kagan and company.
© thevoid99 2011