Yes, ''Ambulance Girl" is yet another inspirational Lifetime tale of self-realization, this time by a middle-age writer who tackles her dream of becoming an EMT. But what's admirable about the movie, which stars and is directed by Kathy Bates, is that it zeroes in on the questions that come after self-realization, after you've changed and your loved ones haven't. Do your friends resent your growth, even while they're happy for you? Are your relationships supple enough to adapt to your empowerment?
As ''Ambulance Girl" unfolds, we have little doubt that Bates's depressed character, Jane Stern, will go on to find great purpose with wounded people in the back of an ambulance. She will discover the positive pluck that Bates has made her endearing signature as an actress, and she will overcome her ''midlife event," as she calls it. But we're not quite so certain about whether Jane's marriage will survive her newfound confidence. Her husband, Michael, hated seeing her mope in front of the TV all day in her bathrobe, but still, there was something about her neurosis that gave him a secure role. He was comfortable as her caretaker, if not content.
The movie, which premieres tonight at 9, is based on the real Stern's 2003 memoir ''Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT." What gives her story an added twist is that Jane and Michael aren't only a married couple. They're a professional team, food writers famous for their co-byline on books and in Gourmet magazine. So when their relationship gets rocky and distant, there are career consequences, most of which befall Michael in the movie. While Jane is clicking with the heroes down at the firehouse, Michael is bitterly keeping ''Jane and Michael Inc." up and running.
In an interesting subplot, Michael underwent his own metamorphosis a few years earlier; he stopped drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Just as he is thrown off-balance by the new Jane, she was thrown off by the new Michael, who no longer relied on her to prop him up. Their codependency has been broken in two places. Jane and Michael are in love with each other, but they're also in love with their enlightened selves. They're facing the tug between individuality and merging, a tug that every marriage negotiates and, often, renegotiates.
Bates is one of the easiest actresses to watch, in that she's unfailingly natural. Even the tiresome scenes of middle-age lust when Jane fantasizes about the male EMTs are made bearable in her hands. And she has a solid acting partner with Robin Thomas, whose Michael runs deep.
Again, ''Ambulance Girl" has more than its share of five-and-dime affirmation. Yep, our girl finds herself, and she gets back on the horse -- literally, since the Sterns are avid riders. But the movie does make a few worthy stops in its rush to save yet another Lifetime woman with low self-esteem.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.