A pediatric nurse becomes foster mother to an HIV-positive baby, only to have the birth mother claim her a year later in "A Place for Annie," a well-acted "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation airing Sunday.
A tear-jerker? Absolutely. But not a manipulative wallow, thanks to superb performances by Oscar-winning Sissy Spacek, in her first network movie in nearly two decades, and Mary-Louise Parker ("Naked in New York").
Spacek portrays Susan, the nurse who loses her heart to the infant Annie, then is outraged when the courts give the child back to Linda (Parker), Annie's newly sober, ex-heroin-addict mother with AIDS.
How the successful, respected Susan and the abjectly dysfunctional Linda find common ground and even a tenuous emotional bond is the heart of the teleplay, written by Cathleen Young and Lee Guthrie and directed by John Gray. Everything else becomes peripheral: Susan's conflict with a beleaguered social worker (S. Epatha Merkerson), her warm relationships with her teen-age son (Jack Noseworthy) and Annie's grandmotherly baby-sitter (Joan Plowright)--even her feelings for baby Annie.
Noseworthy, while pleasant enough, doesn't have much to do other than register dismay and support. Surprisingly, the abundantly gifted Plowright, an unforgettable presence in any film she's in, comes close to caricature here, the victim of an unbelievable role as a Disneyish, dream-come-true baby-sitter and maternal confidant.
It is the integrity of the two leads that wards off bathos and transcends predictability; Parker's nuanced portrayal of one of life's walking wounded discovering a spark of meaning is remarkable.
\o7 * "A Place for Annie" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).