'Christmas on Division Street' packs a wallop


December 12, 1991|By Michael Hill

"Christmas on Division Street" has multiple opportunities to turn into a treacly, sugar-plum fable for the season, but it avoids almost every one of them to remain a surprisingly substantive movie from start to finish.

Not a perfect movie, however. Clearly, this is a statement by Barry Morrow, Oscar winner for the screenplay of "Rain Man," who wrote and co-executive produced this CBS film that will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock.

So, at times it becomes something of a polemic on the plight of the homeless in our society, a bit didactic on the way we might like to begin charity at home, but then make sure its recipients are kept as far away as possible.

But, even if its messages are occasionally heavy-handed, they are messages worth receiving, especially at this time of year when a few more ears might be open to hear them.

In a pairing that could only happen on television, "Christmas on Division Street" stars Hume Cronyn and Fred Savage, a venerable and revered star of American stage and screen and a juvenile sitcom actor. Luckily, as fans of "The Wonder Years" know, Savage has a kind of natural aplomb that carries him through any situation, even trying to match chops with a master like Cronyn, who acts his behind off in this made-for-an-Emmy performance.

Savage plays Trevor, son of your standard upwardly mobile all-American family that, as our film opens, is arriving at its new home in Philadelphia. Trevor's not too keen about the move and is ill-at-ease at his snooty new school, as every 14-year-old is when his new peer group is made up of total strangers.

With his family's encyclopedias still in boxes, he heads for the public library to research his American history paper and there encounters one of those street people who seek warmth and shelter amid the shelves in all our urban areas.

Only this one isn't a recluse, but a talkative, sprightly sort named Cleve, played by Cronyn. Though the security types don't like him bothering the paying customers, he can't help himself and ends up helping others. See, it happens that Cleve is a man of some learning; indeed, he refers to himself as the Minister of Education.

Trevor and Cleve strike up one of those cross-cultural relationships that usually happen only on TV, although this is supposed to be based on a true story.

As with Romeo and Juliet, the scions of these Capulet and Montague families -- Trevor's parents and Cleve's social worker -- order the two to break it off. But they can't. They really do love one another, in part because each is replacing a lost family member for the other, Trevor's grandfather and Cleve's son.

For a while, it appears that "Christmas on Division Street" is going to paint a romanticized, rosy picture of the homeless and their environs, that these are just a bunch of lost, lovable people who have found a truthful simplicity sleeping in a box. Eventually, though, it gets around to showing what a tough life, full of tough people, you get when you live on the streets.

All is not perfect with the film. In addition to the occasional lectures Morrow has his characters deliver, there is a useless subplot involving a misunderstood bully at Trevor's school who alternately picks on and befriends our young hero.

A social worker, played by Jim Byrnes of "Wiseguy" fame, is an interesting character who is never properly integrated into the story, instead just showing up now and then to advance the plot. And Trevor's parents are just ciphers representing middle-class America, not the fully developed characters they should be.

But, though the periphery is filled with problems, the core of the movie, the relationship between this advantaged boy and this homeless man, is solid.

And, at the end, "Christmas on Division Street" doesn't pull any punches and so it manages to deliver a rather powerful wallop. Oh, there's a denouement that's supposed to soften the blow, but the actual climax is a stunning reminder of the fact that the real spirit of giving requires genuine sacrifice, not just bountiful generosity.

That's a message you don't see on TV too much this time of year because it tends to make so many of those advertisements look kind of silly.

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