John Ritter, at least, makes character credible

IT'S A TEAR-JERKER

March 01, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There are a bunch of problems with "The Summer My Father Grew Up," the NBC Sunday night movie at 9 on WMAR (Channel 2).

But, despite all the problems, it is one of those made-for-TV movies that works on a level that has almost nothing to do with traditional calls of "good" or "bad."

It's a movie that is going to get to some viewers. It will put a lump in their throats and possibly make them pause to think about their own lives and relationships.

"The Summer My Father Grew Up" stars John Ritter as Dr. Paul Sanford, the father who grows up. Matthew Lawrence has the other lead role; as Timmy Sanford, he's the son who helps his father grow up.

The plot is a simple one. Paul and his wife, Naomi (Margaret Whitton), are divorced. He lives in San Diego; she lives in New York. Both have remarried. Timmy is their only child. Naomi has custody.

The film opens with Paul eagerly awaiting Timmy's arrival for what he thinks is a summer together. But Timmy is only passing through with his mom and her new husband on their way to Paris. Timmy wants to tell his Dad in person that they won't be pTC spending the summer together.

The rest of the film is about Paul coming to terms with his son's decision and then taking a hard look at the choices he'd made in seeking the divorce and leaving the boy.

The film starts out so sentimental it threatens to break the goop-o-meter. And the script has 11-year-old Timmy delivering thoughts more appropriate to a 40-year-old psychiatrist, who holds an additional degree in family counseling.

But the film tackles a complicated and emotional issue that hundreds of thousands of us deal with every day of our lives -- the wounds that children and parents suffer and inflict on each other during and after a divorce.

John Ritter's performance ultimately makes the story credible enough to offer viewers a chance to identify with the characters on the screen. And once that identification locks in, the lumps in the throat and the second thoughts about how we have lived our lives are often not far behind.

That doesn't make for great television. But it's good-enough TV.

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