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TV REVIEWS : Jean Smart Melts Hearts in 'Princess'

March 26, 1994|RAY LOYND

"The Yarn Princess" is, conservatively, a three-tissue movie. And that's for viewers who fight back tears through clenched teeth. Everyone else might stock up with a whole box of tissues.

The surprise is that the sentiment, invested on a developmentally slow mother fighting to save her kids from court-mandated foster homes, isn't the stacked deck it might seem. Credit the versatile Jean Smart for that and a good script by Dalene Young, who refuses to mollycoddle or overindulge her material.

Inspired by the experiences of a childlike woman (Smart) who nevertheless manages to marry and raise six boys, the production is a casebook study of the quintessential family network TV movie. Despite the burden of a slow-witted mother, a happy, larky blue-collar rural family thrives on love rather than rules. The kids are free to skateboard in the house, paint on the walls and joyously ambush their dad's battered station wagon with stones, but they are also curiously disciplined, likable and attend school.

But this idyll is shattered when their devoted machinist-father (Robert Pastorelli) is incapacitated with a wrenching disease (schizophrenia) and their uncomprehending mother, more Peter Pan-like than an adult, finds herself overwhelmed by child service authorities, lawyers and her increasingly confused children, whose lives are hurtled into disarray.

Director Tom McLoughlin orchestrates all this with a steady hand, drawing strong performances from the two oldest brothers (teens Karl David-Djerf and Luke Edwards), a cliche-free, sympathetic social worker (Giuliana Santini) and a captivating portrait from Smart as the entitled heroine.

From Smart's bright character in "Designing Women" to her twisted, haunted serial killer in 1992's "Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story" to her slightly retarded mother in "Yarn Princess" (so called because of the woman's fascination with spinning yarn), Smart is as unpredictable an actress as gifted.

Her achievement here is physically centered on two techniques that convey the slap of reality and bring her role to endearing life: Primary is her speech patterns, her slightly dull, slow inflection, and next her subtly glazed-over eyes. Nothing is excessive. The result is that when her character breaks into a smile or lapses into frustration, it's genuine and can melt your heart. * "The Yarn Princess" airs Sunday, 9 p.m., on Channel 7.

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