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“So many people are nervous today,” opines a thoughtful Carrie Watts, the feisty octogenarian at the heart of Horton Foote‘s The Trip to Bountiful. “People didn’t used to be so nervous.” It’s a comment that captures the fidgety essence of Lifetime’s latest TV movie, which, like the network’s well-received remake of Steel Magnolias, is newly portrayed by an African-American cast, several of whom starred in the 2013 Broadway revival. (The casting is also a continued show of commitment by Lifetime to include more diversity in its programming). Cicely Tyson plays the irrepressible Mrs. Watts, whose clashes with her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), finally push her to escape from their Houston apartment, to make one last trip to her hometown.
Williams and Tyson’s knowledge of the characters and script from their time on Broadway comes through in Lifetime’s movie, where their performances have a seasoned naturalism. Blair Underwood, as Mrs. Watts’ son Ludie, is as overwhelmed by the women as previous incarnations, but it’s difficult to tell whether he’s in character or not; it would be easy to be caught tongue-tied and succumbing to meekness here, when Williams — and especially Tyson — prove they are not to be reckoned with.
Mrs. Watts’ trip is largely a trip through time, and while the film could have opened more things up visually, it chooses to stay close to Mrs. Watts and her stories of the past. A simple and straight-forward tale of a fractious family, and about a woman who just wants to go back and recapture the happiness of her youth one last time in her life, The Trip to Bountiful does what it can when it comes to atmosphere and cinematography of the 1950s setting; but really, it’s a meditation on age, memory, and home.
Through Mrs. Watts’ own Odyssey to return to Bountiful, she meets a number of kind-hearted people to whom she exposits about her life and her past (including Keke Palmer as Thelma, Mrs. Watts’ seat-mate on the bus, and Clancey Brown as a local Sheriff), but the movie belongs wholly to the elderly traveler. Tyson’s talents are without question (she has two Emmys, a Tony and an Oscar nomination under her belt), and as Mrs. Watts, she could add to her collection. Her portrayal of the crafty, determined, unbreakable and often eccentric older lady is, as the character always has been, the heart and soul of a story that could otherwise be tedious without such a strong lead. But there’s a certain additional sweetness to her, as she sings her hymns, desperate to get out from Jessie Mae’s thumb. When she faces difficulties along her journey — her face falling with disappointment or sadness — it’s impossible not to feel it. All of this also foreshadows the revelation of what Bountiful has become.
Lifetime has had a number of attempts at heartwarming movies in the last few months, but none of them have been so authentic as The Trip to Bountiful, which hits all the right sweet and nostalgic notes without becoming saccharine or overdone. Most of this is thanks to Foote’s snappy writing, but credit is very much due to both Tyson and William’s own sparkling contributions to the material. Although, as the film begins to wind down, so does its momentum — almost suddenly, like an exhalation of breathe — and it then persists for a little while more. Jessie Mae honks the horn to make Ludie and Mrs. Watts hurry up, and there’s a realization, perhaps, that despite everything, patience and desire to sit a spell are lessons still not quite learned. “The time is going,” but there’s no need to be so nervous.
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