The Ballad of Lucy Whipple – Found on Roku.
Director – Jeremy Kagan
Writers – Karen Cushman, and Christopher Lofton
Stars – Glenn Close, Jena Malone, and Bruce McGill
Sometimes I search for what seems like hours just to find a film that makes sense, has great interaction of characters/actors, and a script that’s believable. I don’t need to have superstars in a production, but recognizing a face and a name is always a good sign and having them perform and show their skills seals the deal.
After her husband dies, a widowed mother decides to move the family from New England to California during the Gold Rush. Teenager California Morning Whipple is furious. She misses her New England home, even though her mother and younger siblings are happy in their new home and life. Not wanting anything to do with California, she renames herself Lucy. But over time “Lucy” begins to think of California as her home. Her younger brother is Butte and younger sister is Prairie, a sure clue to the mother’s definite fondness for the West.
Good research, a strong cast, and a story that just keeps moving made this the best two hours of my week.
Lucy’s mother (Glenn Close) acts on her long-held dream of moving west from Massachusetts after the death of her husband. She brings her three children to a California mining town: a patch of buildings, tents, mud, and rough people on a hillside. Young people’s author Karen Cushman, in her third book, provides a rich cast of characters for Lucy’s (Jena Malone) learning experiences: traveling preacher Robert Pastorelli, Sheriff Wilford Brimley, Meat Loaf as a cowboy poet and even a cross-dressing prospector. In the months of spring and summer, Lucy encounters death, new friends in strange places, secrets, prejudice, and evil. Resolving a maze of adolescent conflicts with her mother, 13-year-old Lucy gains maturity in spite of her frustrations, learns to trust herself, and struggles with a most difficult choice at the story’s climax. She ably displays the roots of this kind of story, where we can see ourselves in failure, and as we wish we could be in success.
There is a direct wholesomeness about this story of the Old West that begs comparisons to `Little House on the Prairie’ and `Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman’. It would be easy to be cynical about the simplistic and obvious moral values being preached. But good research, a strong cast, first class production values, and a story that just keeps moving made this a memorable story of spunk, a favorite attribute of mine.
Malone still has the elfin charm of a child actor, but never falters in stealing the show from far more experienced actors. Fans of character actors Pastorelli and Brimley will not be disappointed, and Close masterfully portrays painful changes as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her circumstances. Note that Close is co-executive producer (snagged the rights four years ago?) and author Cushman signed on as a producer (is that how an author can stay close to her work without having to do the screenplay?). I wish my kids were the right age to buy Cushman’s award-winning books for. I may do it anyway, for myself.
By the time this movie neared the end, I was happy with my choice. IMDB did a great job of providing details about the production . . . which probably means I will watch it again. The story line held together, the young hero did her bit, and the other actors all worked together. As a late night viewer, however, I like to double check my assumptions and make sure I missed nothing with a midnight nap. Indeed, I will keep my eyes open for author Karen Cushman.