2 stars (out of 4)
The most valuable lesson I learned in college was this: The sign of a good piece of writing is not necessarily that readers can relate to it.
My writing professor laid down the law: It was illegal to extol a peer's work for its universal appeal. "Find something else you like about it," she'd say. "And if you can't, then you didn't really like it to begin with."
I wish "Red Betsy" writer/director Chris Boebel would have been in that class. Then he might have made a more sophisticated and less sappy movie out of his father's short story.
The film centers around Winifred (Alison Elliott), an independent young woman whose big-city dreams are dashed when new husband Dale goes off to fight in World War II, leaving her behind, pregnant, to care for his gruff and newly widowed father, Emmet (Leo Burmester), in Wisconsin farm country.
Soon Winifred becomes a widow herself, a single mother with two children to look after - her baby girl Jane and Emmet - and a life far different from what she had planned.
Boebel's film tiptoes around some interesting matters, such as how a 10-minute wedding ceremony makes family out of strangers, forcing Winifred to take responsibility for the father-in-law she hardly knows. But instead of facing Winifred's complex situation, Boebel paints her as the perfect movie heroine, standing by her man (even if that man is a mean-spirited new relative) and giving up her dreams only to realize what's important in life: family.
In between all the sentimental (i.e. corny) mumbo-jumbo is a potentially fascinating subplot. The government, with Chad Lowe as its representative, brings electricity to rural Wisconsin. I wonder how real farmers welcomed this "social progress," and I don't trust Boebel's account, which paints Emmet as big energy's only adversary, with the townsfolk embracing modern technology with ease.
In the driving point of the film, Emmet, Winifred and Jane can't reap the benefits of modern amenities or connect with the outside world until they connect to each other.
According to executive producer Andrew Lang, "Red Betsy" is about the connection that we as human beings are all seeking." And yes, we all seek connections. But the movie is so general, so afraid to get specific with feelings and complicated characters, that of course I can relate - just as I can almost always relate to my daily horoscope.
Something tells me my professor would not approve.
Opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG (language and thematic elements).