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Television Review

A Pleasant but Predictable Old West 'Ballad'

February 17, 2001|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In movies with Jena Malone, the least one can expect is a persuasive performance. And that's just what you get Sunday evening from the talented young actress ("Bastard Out of Carolina," "Stepmom") in her latest entry, a CBS frontier drama titled "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple."

She plays California, the bright, book-loving 13-year-old daughter of Glenn Close's Arvella Whipple, a rigid Massachusetts widow running a boardinghouse in Lucky Diggins, a dusty mining town, circa 1850. The missus, you see, named her young'uns (including Butte and Prairie) after things she likes out West. California hates her moniker to the extent that she changes it to Lucy on a whim one afternoon.

In Christopher Lofton's serviceable, character-driven adaptation of a book by Karen Cushman, Lucy encounters a troubled family man (Dennis Christopher), an illiterate girl (Olivia Burnette) living in the woods and a blustery preacher (Robert Pastorelli) "mining for souls."

Equally stubborn, the spirited Lucy and God-fearing Arvella don't always see eye to eye, but they close ranks when the going gets toughest.

The coarse, grubby miners aren't colorful, but Lucy is an appealing protagonist who sustains our interest. Malone is in good company with Close (in spite of the character's distractingly dark brown hair) and Pastorelli, who predictably unite as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, director Jeremy Kagan makes the most of the nice scenery on the film's location in Park City, Utah.

"Ballad" certainly won't make you sing, but it's palatable entertainment.

*

* "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple" can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).

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