America -- TV Review

Rosie O'Donnell wrote, exec produced and stars in "America," a bleak, agenda-driven tale that aims to educate Americans about the sorry state of our broken foster care system through the eyes of a troubled 17-year-old named America -- which might be analogous to, say, naming a financial institution Freeloader.

There is danger in using a single metaphor to paint a broad picture of profound dysfunction, and "America" sometimes struggles to overcome its own heavy-handed moralizing and speechifying. But taken as a whole, it's an often powerful -- and uniformly well-acted -- telepic that's indicative of Lifetime's seeming commitment to putting more bite into its storytelling. It's certainly more potent than what we've come to expect from a network long best known for its themes of women in peril. And in serving up a male protagonist, the film -- based on a novel by E.R. Frank -- demonstrates a subtle shift away from the ladies-only mandate of the past.

Newcomer Philip Johnson turns in a relaxed and dynamic performance as America, a teenager left wracked by hair-trigger hostility due to a childhood of abuse. As the film opens, he lands in a group home in full shutdown mode, allowing no one to penetrate his brooding hide. He has a predictably difficult adjustment to his surroundings, clashing with one particularly scornful kid and beset by constant flashbacks of a youth spent with a sweet but inattentive grandmother (Ruby Dee) and a pedophile uncle (Tim Edward Rhoze) who introduces him early on to booze and felonious physical contact. As he moves through a daily life of combat, he's taken under the wing of the home's resident tough-love therapist (O'Donnell) while being pursued romantically by a cute but troubled girl in the home (Raquel Castro).

O'Donnell, despite her stillbirth of an NBC variety special last November, is a solid performer whose attempts to drive home the story's point detract a bit from its attempts at authenticity. Her script, co-written with Emmy-nominated veteran scribe Joyce Eliason, pushes all of the proper buttons in making its symbolic points, while Yves Simoneau's direction is steady and strong.

A postscript voice-over by O'Donnell at the film's conclusion, designed to alert viewers to the grand scale of the foster care problem, is a bit of overkill we don't really need. It also may be an unfortunate case of really bad timing. If the nation's abused and neglected kids expect their country to take steps to lighten their load, they'll need to get in line behind the bank presidents.

Airdate: 9-11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 (Lifetime)
Production: The Sanitsky Co. in association with Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime Television
Executive producers: Larry Sanitsky, Rosie O'Donnell
Producer: David A. Rosemont
Co-producer: Yves Simoneau
Teleplay: Joyce Eliason, Rosie O'Donnell
Based on a novel by: E.R. Frank
Director: Yves Simoneau
Director of photography: John Aronson
Production designer: Warren Alan Young
Editor: Richard Comeau
Music: Normand Corbeil
Casting: Julie Tucker, Ross Meyerson, Carrie Ray
Cast: Rosie O'Donnell, Philip Johnson, Raquel Castro, Tim Edward Rhoze, Ruby Dee