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Utah stars in ‘Lucy’

SHARE Utah stars in ‘Lucy’

A good actor makes you forget who he is and convinces you he's the character he's playing. And, in the CBS movie "Golden Dreams: The Ballad of Lucy Whipple," Utah is a very good actor.

The TV movie was shot in the Beehive State — mostly on a ranch east of Oakley — but there are no Utah references whatsoever. "Ballad" is set in California during the Gold Rush, in the fictional town of Lucky Diggins.

Of course, Utah isn't the only good actor in the telefilm. Glenn Close and Jenna McMahon play mother and daughter in the period piece, based on Karen Cushman's book. And they do a fine job with a script that's not exactly up to the standards of Close's trilogy of "Sarah Plain and Tall" stories.

"The Ballad of Lucy Whipple" (Sunday, 8 p.m., Ch. 2) isn't a bad movie, it just isn't anywhere near as good as it aspires to be.

Close stars as Arvella Whipple, an adventurous widow who leaves Massachusetts with her three children in tow to run a boarding house in Lucky Diggins — a boarding house that turns out to be nothing more than a tent in a gold-rush boom town that's not exactly booming. McMahon plays her oldest daughter, a 14-year-old named California who, not surprisingly, hates her name and insists of being called Lucy.

(Lucy's younger brother and sister are named Butte and Prairie, if that tells you anything about their mother.)

Life in 19th-century California isn't easy for the Whipples. Nor was Cushman's book easy to translate into a two-hour TV script, what with the brawling and battling; the tragedy of one youngster's death; the subplot about an abusive father that turns into a murder trial; and the fire that burns most of the town to the ground. Oh, and a bit of a love story as well.

The real battle, however, is between Lucy and her mother. Lucy is in many ways a typical teen — resentful, withdrawn, uncommunicative and self-centered. Not a bad kid — indeed, she's bright and talented — but one that complains constantly that her mother doesn't understand her, while at the same time making no effort to understand her mother. But the prickly relationship between the two is what drives "Ballad" and provides its best moments.

In addition to Close and McMahon, the cast includes Robert Pastorelli ("Murphy Brown") as the town's unorthodox preacher; Meat Loaf Aday as the blacksmith; Chloe Webb as the town's low-key prostitute; and Wilford Brimley as the sheriff.

"Ballad" is aimed at a family audience and, for the most part, there's not much to worry about. (Really young kids may, however, be taken aback when that one young character dies, but the veiled references to the prostitute will probably go right over their heads.)

Whether kids or their parents will sit through the movie is an entirely different question. There's a reason the movie has been sitting on CBS's shelf for the past couple of years — despite the action, the movie never really establishes a smooth flow.

And, by trying to squeeze in so much, the script shortchanges the characters. And the viewers.

Ah, well. At least there's some gorgeous Utah scenery to look at — even if most viewers aren't aware it's Utah they're looking at.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com