Farrow's talent is no secret


August 19, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One of the happiest byproducts of the explosion in made-for-cable-television movies is the forum it offers for actresses of a certain age to keep working in featured roles. Hollywood is still far too willing to celebrate youth over talent, but made-for-cable movies like Lifetime's The Secret Life of Zoey help right the balance.

The title role of Zoey Carter in this story of middle-class, suburban, teen addiction to prescription drugs is played by Julia Whelan (Once and Again), one of television's most talented young stars. But the actress whose performance grabs you from the opening frame is Mia Farrow (Hannah and Her Sisters) as Marcia Carter, Zoey's mom, who is recently divorced and trying to find her way back into the workforce after 16 years. It isn't so much that Farrow steals the film as it is her presence demanding your attention. Farrow can still, as they say, fill the screen -- and then some.

Director Robert Mandel wisely opens the film with the camera on Farrow and never lets it stray too far away. The first six minutes or so is almost all Farrow as we watch her character hurrying from a donut shop to the dry cleaners, to her part-time job as a receptionist at the beauty salon of her best friend, Mimi (Caroline Aaron). Before she has spoken a handful of words, we already understand Marcia Carter as a middle-aged woman racing to catch up with life and, despite a determined front, afraid that it's passed her by.

Much of that anxiety is related to her relationship with her daughter, a seemingly well adjusted, straight-A student. Marcia understands that Zoey is at an age where she needs to start determining her own identity, but she has some emotional needs, too, and her relationship with Zoey is at the heart of them. Because of that, mom is not going to be the best guide through the difficult life passage that she and her daughter are about to try and navigate.

The heart of the film is the story of how Zoey gets lost in drugs and then with the help of her parents and a psychiatric social worker (Andrew McCarthy) tries to find herself. Ultimately, it is Whelan who has to carry that load, and happily she does. Like Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, Whelan makes you feel the fragility of the teen ego under all that self-absorption. Just as she did with her character in Once and Again, Whelan makes you feel her pain and gets you rooting for her.

To its credit, the film does not offer easy answers. In terms of blame, Zoey starts out using her parents' prescription pain killers and tranquilizers, so the parents are partially to blame for not providing closer supervision. But it is Zoey herself who decides to do marijuana and Oxycontin, and then start shoplifting to get the money to buy the drugs.

And, while her parents are supportive once she is placed in a substance abuse program, it is Zoey who has to make the decision that she wants to live drug-free. That is not an easy or an overnight decision for Zoey, and much of the film's drama is in her journey through the drug-treatment program with a social worker instead of her mom or dad (Cliff De Young) as her ultimate guide. There is some wisdom here -- not just about teens and drugs, but life passages and how perilous the journey can be.

Marcia Carter also has a journey to make. Part of it involves moving back into the workforce full time. But more important is the process of letting her daughter move on to becoming an adult.

Most of that story is treated as subtext in the final scenes. But that's another happy byproduct of having an actress of a certain age like Farrow in the role. You don't have to hit the viewer over the head with what's happening to the character, even at the deepest recesses of her psyche. The actress can make you feel it without hardly saying a word.


What: The Secret Life of Zoey

When: Tonight at 9

Where: Lifetime

In brief: Mia Farrow's performance is reason enough to watch.

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