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Formulaic 'Miss Lettie' still good viewing

Sunday, December 08, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What a shame. Cast Mary Tyler Moore and then make her suppress her luminous, signature smile.

That's what the actress must do for most of "Miss Lettie and Me," an original movie premiering tonight at 8 on cable's TNT. Any time a movie is about a woman who has "closed her life and heart to new people and experiences," you can bet that someone will appear to pry that life, heart and smile wide open.

TV Preview
'Miss Lettie and Me'
When: 8 and 10 p.m. today on TNT, with repeats through Dec. 21.
Starring: Mary Tyler Moore, Charlie Robinson, Burt Reynolds, Holliston Coleman.

Everything in "Miss Lettie" goes strictly by the numbers in that regard, but it still proves touching in the end. How could it not?

Like a TV chef who tosses everything into a blender to make a fruit smoothie, the creators mix a cute kid, an adorable lamb, a death, a romance rekindled, a reckoning, a sacrifice and a church Christmas pageant. The only thing missing is the surprise snowfall, although since the movie was shot in Georgia, you can't have everything. Still, it doesn't feel like a proper holiday film without a blizzard worthy of "The Waltons."

Credit young Holliston Coleman for shining in scenes with Moore, Charlie Robinson from "Night Court," Burt Reynolds and Irma P. Hall. The girl is cute without being precious and spunky without being obnoxious, although her character is a bit mouthy to her elders.

Holliston plays Travis, the 9-year-old grandniece of Miss Lettie (Moore), an unmarried woman who lives alone on a lovely farm outside a small town. She's cut herself off from everyone except her longtime farmhand and friend, Isaiah (Robinson), his family and her starchy mahjong club. Lettie is the sort of woman who declares: "If there's one thing even more overrated than family dinners, it's first love." Feel the chill in the air.

Lettie is informed, by letter, that she has a grandniece she never knew existed and that the girl will be arriving by bus the next day for a two-week visit. Travis, who already has lived in 28 states, has been sent to the farm while her waitress-singer mother settles in Hollywood.

Lettie refuses to get close to Travis, instead leaving her largely in the care of Isaiah, a sainted man who never seems to have much time for his own family. Travis also befriends Isaiah's mother (Hall) and Samuel Madison (Reynolds), a native who has returned home to open an ice cream parlor. The story builds to the requisite Christmas Day climax, bringing the principal players together around the tree.

"Miss Lettie and Me" is based on a Katherine Paterson short story called "Poor Little Innocent Lamb" from a Christmas collection titled "A Midnight Clear." Although set in the present day, the town feels like Mayberry revisited, the Lettie-Isaiah relationship has a whiff of "Driving Miss Daisy" about it, and the movie's family estrangement is the stuff of a "Dr. Phil" episode.

I cannot envision "Miss Lettie and Me" becoming an annual classic (a single viewing was enough for me), but young Holliston is an irrepressible Travis and Robinson makes a gentle, gentlemanly farmhand. The two work splendidly together. I thought Moore looked too young to be Reynolds' contemporary, but they both were born in 1936. You can draw your own conclusions about their youthfulness, real or surgically enhanced

A movie about lost lambs, in every sense of that phrase, is a welcome throwback at any time of year, especially this one.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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