Garr, Harris rise above predictable plot TELEVISION REVIEW

October 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Stranger in the Family" is very familiar TV-movie fare.

The formula goes like this: You have a nice, happy family to whom something terrible happens -- usually illness or death -- leaving the members unable to cope. The family begins to come apart -- at this point lots of photographs or videotapes of happier times are shown -- before they at last accept the situation and find a different kind of happiness.

Two things keep "Stranger in the Family," which airs at 9 Sunday night on Channel 13, from the tedium such a predictable story line often leads to: Teri Garr and Neil Patrick Harris. Garr, who sleepwalks her way through the dreadful "Good & Evil'" sitcom, works harder at acting in this film than she has in the last several years. Harris, star of the very successful "Doogie Howser, M.D.," gets a chance to stretch dramatically and shows lots of promise.

"Stranger" opens with a car carrying 16-year-old Steve Thompson (Harris) being rear-ended by a drunken driver. At first, doctors say Steve has just a bump on the head and temporary amnesia -- he'll be fine in a few days. But the real diagnosis is far worse: Steve suffers from severe, retrograde amnesia, and it's permanent. He remembers nothing from the first 16 years of his life; he has to relearn such simple skills as brushing his teeth.

Playing such a role is difficult and Harris isn't always up to the demands. At one point, he'll walk as if disabled; in the next scene he's walking fine. But Harris does manage the larger task of communicating a sense of disorientation and being cut off from one's feelings.

Garr's performance kicks into gear about halfway through the movie when her character loses the ability to be the all-caring, all-giving mother. The role must be double-edged -- one minute loving, the next minute bitter about getting little back in return -- and Garr rises to the challenge.

For most viewers, this is not a movie to rearrange your evening around. But, along with two solid acting performances, "Stranger in the Family" can offer strength to families experiencing their own crises, especially with teen-agers.

When they are relevant to one's real life, formulas can be as inspirational to you as they are predictable and boring to others.

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