Rob Lowe meets the `Beach Girls'

Cable movie takes a surprisingly wise look at life

Television

July 31, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The notion of Rob Lowe in a Lifetime cable movie with the title Beach Girls might lead some viewers to tune in expecting to see how far he has fallen since walking away from the plum role of presidential aide Sam Seaborn in NBC's The West Wing. After all, being the male lead in any movie on the channel that bills itself as "Television for Women" often means playing a one-dimensional, insensitive heavy who has to be killed off, sent away or didactically re-educated to being more open about his feelings by film's end.

Lowe's character, Boston attorney and widower Jack Kilvert, is in for some re-education in Beach Girls, but his performance and the film are two of the more understated and quietly pleasant surprises of the summer TV season. Despite the top billing that Lowe shares with Julia Ormand, the real stars are newcomer Chelsea Hobbs, who plays Kilvert's grief-stricken 16-year-old daughter, Nell, and the summertime beachfront community of Hubbard's Point.

Beach Girls is steeped in sun, sand, memory and secrets - its story lines play out at a leisurely pace more suited to the rhythm of an art-house film, or summer itself, than the hyped-up urgency of most prime-time made-for-TV movies. Lifetime has wisely made a major programming commitment in scheduling the six-hour production across five successive Sundays (starting tonight at 8), offering viewers an engaging end-of-the-weekend video treat in perfect sync with the season.

The film opens with father and daughter arriving in Hubbard's Point at the start of summer to take possession of a beach house for the season.

"Every family has its history," viewers hear Nell saying in voiceover as they drive along the waterfront. "And my family's history begins at Hubbard's Point, where my mom and dad met on the beach in the summer of 1985. My mom talked about it so much when I was little that I sometimes forgot that I had never been there. My mom and her two best friends called themselves the Beach Girls. I thought best friends were supposed to last forever, but as I got older and started asking questions, the stories began to change."

If that sounds a bit literary, it's because executive producer Alys Shanti wisely retains some of the flavor of Luanne Rice's best-seller on which the film is based. As summery light as Beach Girls can sometimes feel, there is nevertheless wisdom to be found in what the movie has to say about friendship, memory, renewal and resilience of the human spirit.

In bringing Nell (Hobbs) to Hubbard's Point, Kilvert (Lowe) hopes his daughter will somehow feel closer to her mother, who recently was killed in an auto accident. On her first day in town, Nell tracks down one of her late mother's best friends and former beach girl, Stevie Moore (Ormand), a successful writer and year-round resident. The two women instantly bond, but rather than being pleased, Kilvert is troubled by Moore's reappearance in his life. Like Hubbard's Point, he had not seen her since the summer of 1985.

There are secrets within secrets, and trios within trios of beach girls in the film. Nell finds two kindred spirits in Hubbard's Point and becomes best friends with them.

Meanwhile, she invites her dad's estranged sister, Maddie (Katherine Ashby), the third beach girl in 1985, to visit them at their summer place for a Founder's Day celebration. Nell takes the place of her mom alongside the two women, but the reunion of the old friends only angers her father, who is finding out that his wife had a life she kept secret from him.

In the end, the film belongs to Hobbs. She plays a character moving back and forth between the lethargic pull of depression over her mother's death and the heightened sense of energy and endless possibilities that come with being 16, living at the ocean and moving through such rites of passage as her first date. Hobbs makes one feel Nell's coming-of-age inner tension and confusion every moment onscreen.

As for Lowe, there is a lot of Sam Seaborn in his depiction of Kilvert as a highly intelligent and tightly wrapped WASP attorney, but there is certainly nothing wrong with that, as the many fans of his work in The West Wing know. And, maybe, Seaborn would have been better off had he been given a few Lifetime-style lessons by the ladies of The West Wing in more openly expressing his feelings.

On TV

What: Beach Girls

When: Tonight and the next four Sundays at 8

Where: Lifetime

In brief: A coming-of-age movie in perfect sync with summer

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