Too often, inspirational movies about extreme bravery in the face of affliction are pure goo. They only manage to inspire a few rolls of the eyes in those of us with more ironic constitutions. Robin Williams has starred in a number of these schmaltz-a-thons, which strain to milk tears while simplifying the real hardships of those with disabilities. And the Lifetime channel has served up more than its share of these drippy stories.
Still, it's hard to knock a sentimental portrait of triumph over adversity when it is directed by Christopher Reeve, whose own life story was a model of courage and hope. The memory of the actor-director, who died on Oct. 10, stands as an argument to those of us tempted to call his new made-for-TV movie, "The Brooke Ellison Story," artificial or saccharine.
The truth-based tale of a quadriplegic who refuses to limit herself and who ends up graduating from Harvard, the movie is Reeve's final note of affirmation, and as such it has added weight. After all, he managed to direct movies -- and act and lobby and raise money -- despite the obvious obstacles.
What's most apparent about the movie, which premieres tonight at 8 on A&E, is that it bears a lot in common with Reeve's situation. Ellison is hit by a car at age 11, on the way home from school. She fights for her life in the hospital, while her devoted parents Jean and Ed (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and John Slattery) wait by her side, refusing to give up. Once she emerges from near death, she begins to obsess about returning to school -- almost more than she seems to worry about spending her life in a wheelchair and requiring round-the-clock care. Like Reeve, she is driven to overcome.
But Reeve isn't telling his own story so much as paying homage to a fellow soldier, one who's dealing not only with the loss of her bodily functions but the loss of her youth. He also seems particularly interested in the secondary characters. The movie is tinged with affection and respect for those who surround Brooke, most notably Mastrantonio's Jean, who gives up her teaching career to nurse her daughter.
Reeve makes her the secret hero of the piece, a woman so invested in her daughter's success that she -- and not her daughter -- is most broken-hearted when a possible love affair for Brooke fails. It's movie altruism, with the one requisite "I've given up my life for you" fight scene; but it's not as cloying as it could be. Also, Reeve cuts the mush by having the actresses who play Brooke at different ages, Vanessa Marano and Lacy Chabert, project stoicism where others might play inner torment.
The movie, based on "Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey" by Brooke and Jean Ellison, goes through all the familiar scenarios -- Brooke's parents ignoring pessimistic doctors, Brooke's older sister feeling unloved when Brooke gets all the attention, the Harvard administration making elaborate accommodations to make Brooke's life easier. It's exactly the tale you might expect about an indomitable spirit under duress, but this time with a formidable shadow cast over it.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org