Directed by Martin Bell and written by Peter Silverman and Michael de Guzma, Hidden in America is the story of a working-class father trying to find work to help feed his two young children. Meanwhile, a doctor offers to help the man as he also notices that the man’s daughter is becoming ill. Starring Beau Bridges, Bruce Davison, Jena Malone, Alice Krige, Shelton Dane, and special appearances from Frances McDormand and Jeff Bridges. Hidden in America is a compelling although very sentimental TV-movie from Martin Bell.
After losing his wife and his job at an auto plant in Michigan, Bill Januson (Beau Bridges) moves to Seattle with his two children as he’s struggling to pay the bills and keep his children from being hungry. While his 11-year old son Robbie (Shelton Dane) is concerned while hoping that things don’t get worse, Bill’s young daughter Willa (Jena Malone) is falling ill due to malnutrition. When the father of Willa’s friend in Dr. Michael Millerton (Bruce Davison) checks up on her when he volunteers for a clinic. He’s concerned as he hears about Bill’s struggle to keep things afloat as Dr. Millerton offers to help though Bill politely turns down his offer in hopes to find a steady job.
With things not improving, Robbie skips school to help a mechanic named Gus (Frances McDormand) to help restore a car in hopes that he can get money to help out. Bill meanwhile, gets a job to work as a busboy for a posh restaurant but loses it due to the owner hiring his nephew as Bill struggles to get by. Though Dr. Millerton and his wife (Alice Krige) invite Bill and the kids to a barbeque as Dr. Millerton continues to want to help Bill by trying to get him a job. Bill considers it although things aren’t getting easier as he reluctantly decides to apply for food stamps. With Robbie feeling disappointed towards his father and hoping to do things himself, something doesn’t go according to plan as more troubles occur for the Januson family.
The TV movie is about a working-class man that is trying to help his two children as he tries to find them a job and prevent them from going hungry as his daughter is falling ill. When a doctor wants to help him, the man politely declines in order to maintain a sense of pride that he has though things eventually become tougher as his young son skips school to work as a mechanic. Throughout the film, there is a sense of conflict in both the working-class man and a rich doctor as the former just wants to prove that he’s still a man by providing for his family. The latter meanwhile, just wants to help out for the sake of his concern for a young girl who is his daughter’s best friend.
The script does succeed in exploring what Dr. Millerton wants to do and what Bill Januson is going through. Both are flawed as Dr. Millerton doesn’t really know what Bill has gone through despite Millerton’s insistence on helping out while Bill’s flaw is that he’s stubborn to let people help him. Yet, they’re both are concerned for Bill’s kids as Willa is having headaches and is coughing a lot due to her illness while Robbie is desperate to get things better by skipping school to help a mechanic. The script is definitely strong for the way it dwells into the world of hunger and a man trying to survive to help his children. It also works for what one wants to do to help but also not want to do the wrong thing as the script definitely succeeds in playing up the conflict and struggle though does dwell into sentimentality late in the film.
Martin Bell’s direction is very good for the way he captures a lot of the dramatic moments while not making it heavy-handed. While the compositions for the TV movie are pretty straightforward, Bell does know how to shoot actors and make the audience be engaged by what is going on. One of Bell’s directing highlights is the barbeque scene where Bill and Dr. Millerton’s family are eating where no one really has anything in common other than Willa and Dr. Millerton’s daughter Caroline (Allegra Denton). It is to contrast the different worlds though Dr. Millerton and his wife try to make Bill seem comfortable. Bell does manage to make some great moments that are light-hearted to not dwell into melodrama. The only major flaw he does as a director is create this very overwrought montage of Bill’s old life that really felt unnecessary to what is happening. Despite that montage, Bell does manage to create a solid yet touching drama.
Cinematographer James R. Bagdonas does a nice job with the photography to exemplify the differing worlds of the two men from the brighter and more colorful world of Dr. Millerton to the more low-key look of Bill‘s home while the exterior shots are very straightforward. Editor Nancy Baker does a pretty good job with the editing as there’s nothing really outstanding since there’s not a lot of stylistic flairs though it does maintain a nice, leisured pace for what is expected in a TV movie.
Production designer Ed Hanna, along with set decorator Doug McCullough and art director Terry Wareham, does some excellent work with the set pieces such as the posh home that Dr. Millerton and his family live in to the more simple but dreary apartment Bill and his children live. Costume designer Martha Mann does a fine job with the costumes to exemplify the differences of a lot of the characters as it’s mostly casual kind of clothing. Sound editor Marc Vancour does an excellent job with the sound work to capture the location of the cities and places that Willa and Caroline play to the raucous world of the employment lines that Bill has to go into. The score by Mason Daring is wonderful for its low-key yet melodic-driven score as it is carried mostly by marimbas and low orchestral pieces to play up some of the dramatic and light-hearted moments of the film.
The film’s cast is definitely superb as it features some notable appearances from Josef Sommer and Pixie Bigelow as Dr. Millerton’s parents, Liisa Repo-Martell as an assistant of Gus, Judy Enns as Bill’s late wife in pictures and a flashback scene, Dan Petronijevic as Dr. Millerton’s teenage son, and Jeff Bridges in a small but memorable performance as an associate of Dr. Millerton. Other small roles from Allegra Denton as Dr. Millerton’s daughter Caroline and Alice Krige as Millerton’s wife Dee are very good while Frances McDormand is excellent as the wise yet no-nonsense mechanic Gus. Shelton Dane is superb as Robbie, a young kid that becomes desperate to help out when he feels let down by his dad while hoping that his scheme to skip school and work as a mechanic would work.
Jena Malone is wonderful in a crucial yet low-key performance as Willa, a young girl who is feeling ill while trying to understand the situation her father is going through with a silent observance. Malone also exudes an innocence and melancholia to the role that feels real as it’s one of her most remarkable roles in her early career as a child actress. Bruce Davison is great as Dr. Millerton, a doctor who befriends Willa and Bill as he hopes to help Bill out while trying to figure out why Bill isn’t able to accept his offer as it’s a very sensitive yet warm performance from Davison. Beau Bridges is amazing as Bill Januson, a proud widower and father that is trying to do what is right while dealing with harsh realities that makes him feel inadequate as it’s very raw yet mesmerizing performance from Bridges.
Hidden in America is a stellar and heart wrenching TV movie from Martin Bell. Featuring a wonderful cast that includes the likes of Beau Bridges, Bruce Davison, Jena Malone, and Frances McDormand, it’s a TV movie that works in emphasizing what people try to go through along with those that just want to help out. While the TV film does dwell into bits of sentimentality towards the end, it does manage to keep things simple without being too heavy-handed with a lot of what TV movies do. In the end, Hidden in America is a very solid TV movie from Martin Bell.
© thevoid99 2011
I actually saw this in school and it's depressing but also pretty good, especially when it comes to the issue about poverty and how sad and how much bigger it is getting. Also, Beau Bridges is great in this role as the Dad. Good review Steve. Never thought I'd see anybody review this one.
Well, if there's anything Jena Malone is in and is available. I'm pretty much the one guy that will check out and review it. After all, I'm working on a list of her best performances.
I thought this was a pretty good film though I had a few issues with some of the things in the third act. Still, I liked it.
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