Holiday movie goes for the heartstrings


NBC's unofficial kickoff to the holiday made-for-TV film festival makes clear right at the start tonight that it is taking no prisoners in the emotional battle.

We start out at a cemetery as a retarded girl and adopted boy visit the grave of their mother, accompanied by their kindly, seemingly perfect father.

After that, we learn that the local orphanage, run by a kindly, seemingly perfect woman (Cloris Leachman), is about to be closed by evil state bureaucrats, sending its kids to a Dickensian fate. Then, a few minutes down the road, the father is dead, too.

It would take a coldhearted viewer to turn over to Monday Night Football at that point.

Actually, though, "A Little Piece of Heaven" does lighten up after the heavy going of its opening stanza, turning into a pleasant, quixotic journey that tries, with uneven success, to provide a commentary on what it is that makes a family.

This film, which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) tonight at 9 o'clock, is also a vehicle to show off Kirk Cameron, teen-dream star of ABC's "Growing Pains," and he responds like a seasoned veteran who can play a Tom Hanks-type nice guy with ease.

But the star of the show is Jenny Robertson, who plays the retarded girl, as she is able to keep the character's wonderful childlike simplicity without minimizing the difficulties of her handicap.

"A Little Piece of Heaven" is set in the mythical Midwest, the family farm country that gave us Dorothy of "The Wizard of Oz." Cameron's character, faced with the loss of his family, secretly takes a new arrival -- a tough Chicago street kid -- from the orphanage that nurtured him out to his farm.

When the kid questions his surroundings, he's told he's died and gone to heaven. A local girl, a victim of child abuse no less, soon joins them. Together they fight the forces of bureaucracy, the same evil types that plagued the kids in "E.T."

Though it stumbles a bit on its improbabilities and is marred by the unnecessary presence and wooden acting of Chelsea Noble, a.k.a. Mrs. Kirk Cameron, playing a new neighbor, "A Little Piece of Heaven" is a pleasant diversion that does what it's supposed to do, get your insides in that warm, fuzzy holiday mood.

* You've got to wonder about those fund-raising decisions they make out at Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, currently in the middle of its annual you-can-still-get-a-tax-deduction, end-of-the-year membership drive.

Say you're a devoted fan of "Masterpiece Theatre," that excellent series of British productions that airs every Sunday night. You'd be happy to give some money when the pleading starts in the middle of one of those fine productions.

But, if you tuned in last night for an exceptional drama that featured the last filmed performance of the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft, you'd have found the two-hour film pre-empted for another showing of the fine, but oft-rerun, "Anne of Green Gables."

Or say you've been faithfully watching the interesting series "Childhood" during its Monday night run over the past couple of months. Again, if the pledge break showed up after tonight's episode, you'd fork over a few bucks to support such fine television.

But, when you tune in tonight at 9 o'clock for the final episode -- an interesting if a bit soft-hitting hour on adolescence -- you'll find Part 2 of "Anne of Green Gables."

To see "Childhood," you'll have to wait until 11 p.m. And MPT isn't even running a riveting 90-minute special designed to follow this last program, a Phil Donahue-led discussion about the state of children in America and the appropriate role of public policy.

Devoted viewers of "Frontline," the documentary series that certainly is worthy of being supported by contributions, will find themselves in a similar fix if tomorrow night they look for an important hour on a youngster who fell through the cracks of New York's social services agencies and was killed by abusive parents. "Who Killed Adam Mann?" falls victim to the first part of "Anne of Green Gables -- the Sequel."

Look, understand that "Anne of Green Gables" and its sequel are both excellent productions with a proven track record of popularity, just the type of programming MPT looks for as it tries to cast its net as widely as possible at fund-raising time.

But, the bottom line is that regular MPT supporters, those who back public broadcasting day in and day out with their viewing habits, are ill-served by MPT at fund-raising time.

Those of you who like "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Childhood" and "Frontline" should know that -- if you have a good antenna or a cable connection -- there's something you can do. All these programs are available at their regular times on Channel 26 (WETA) out of Washington. They'll even be happy to accept your contributions.

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