It would have been so easy to have taken "Lucky Day" and boiled it down into usual TV movie pabulum.
Here's what the story of this ABC movie would have been then. A woman takes care of her retarded sister after both grow up mistreated by their alcoholic mother. When the retarded woman wins $2 million in a state lottery, their mother, claiming sobriety, suddenly reappears in their lives and fights to take the woman back under her roof in order to get her hands on the money.
That didn't happen to "Lucky Day." Perhaps because it was produced under the umbrella of the ABC Theatre Presentations, the network's place for its quality movies, it wasn't forced into one of the standardized molds.
Instead, the screenplay by John Axness and Jennifer Miller, as directed by Donald Wrye, retained a multi-leveled depth, shunning easy answers or trite solutions to the dilemmas it presents. It avoided the usual perfect heroes and disgusting villains and populated its cast with fully flawed human beings -- and one innocent naif -- all searching for the redemptive power of love.
In the hands of a superb cast, featuring Amy Madigan, Olympia Dukakis and Chloe Webb, "Lucky Day" becomes a television movie of extraordinary power, among the best of its genre, worthy of your full attention tonight at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ).
Madigan brings a nice surface brashness that hides tumult beneath to Kari Campbell, who is at the apex of "Lucky Day's" multi-dimensional triangle. A physical therapist and a serious painter on the side, she shares an apartment with her retarded older sister, Allison, played as vulnerable and childlike in a consistent performance by Webb.
You know right off that there's bad blood between Kari and her mother, Katherine, played by Dukakis as a woman of potential strength who is still tragically afraid of life. It turns out that Mom was a falling-down drunk during most of the girls' childhood. She's been sober for two years now, but even acknowledging that fact, much less showing any pride in it, merely stokes the smoldering flames of old resentments.
Kari wraps up these memories in pretty ribbons for Allison, telling her stories of incidents from their childhood in which she is the hero. The viewer sees what actually happened in re-created scenes while Kari tells the fairy tale versions.
But what you soon come to realize is that, if Allison was in actuality only an innocent and helpless bystander in these incidents, Kari was not the hero either. As her mother's alcoholism forced on her the burden of caring for her older sister, Kari built up a tremendous amount of resentment that often came out in cruelty directed toward Allison.
Kari's seemingly selfless relationship with her sister now is but one of the many ways she tries to hide from those feelings. And the bitterness Kari used to attack her mother is not only an understandable reaction to the woman who ruined her childhood, but also an attempt to discredit and silence the only credible witness to her own failings in those years.
L Kari is also using Allison to shield herself from the world.
Even hitting the lottery is not made into the melodramatic centerpiece you would expect in a TV movie. It's portrayed as, like so much of life, one of those odd things that just happens.
After the lottery win, Katherine brings a court action to re-establish herself as Allison's conservator. Is this mother's sudden interest in her daughter merely an attempt to grab Allison's new-found wealth? Or, now that she's sober, is she genuinely interested in finding a bit of redemption relatively late in life?
And in so bitterly contesting her mother's action, is Kari really trying to do what's best for Allison? Or is she trying to perpetuate her mother's punishment and her own self-delusion?
The answer to all these questions is "yes," as "Lucky Day" doesn't deal in blacks and whites but keeps itself in the gray areas where most of life is lived. It relishes the ambiguity shunned by the vast majority of TV movies. Not surprisingly, its ending offers not resolution, but only a hint of hope.
You can trot out the adjectives -- absorbing, compelling, engrossing, touching, fascinating, whatever -- for this one. You don't have to win the lottery. Watching this film will make this your lucky day.
**** A retarded woman who wins $2 million in a lottery is cared for by her younger sister who tries to come to terms with the resentment she feels toward their alcoholic mother.
CAST: Amy Madigan, Olympia Dukakis, Chloe Webb
TIME: Tonight at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)