Mona Hibbard is one determined young lady. Since she was a young girl, Mona has wanted only one thing: to be a beauty queen. And as events have proven throughout her life, Mona will do anything to win that title: lie, steal, cheat, engage in sabotage, even hand over her own daughter to be raised as another woman's.
If only "Beautiful," the film that chronicles Mona's all-out assault on pageant-dom, displayed the same single-mindedness. Instead, director Sally Field's big-screen debut veers from light comedy to parody to feminist parable. The film never settles on a tone, making it discomfiting to watch - Field, who so famously enjoys being liked, may be too nice to skewer something mercilessly, but that's the approach "Beautiful" demands.
We first see a gangly, 12-year-old Mona (Colleen Rennison, giving the film's most winning performance) struggling to make up in determination what she lacks in physical beauty: she delivers groceries to raise money to pay her entry fees; she takes notes on what the successful beauty queens say and do; she practices waving; she even goes to beauty pageant school. And she does it without any help from her drunken stepfather (who may be sexually abusing her, an unfunny idea touched on only briefly) or her emotionally stilted mother.
The only person who cares about Mona is mousy Ruby (Jacqueline Steiger), who becomes Mona's soul mate and the brains behind Mona's zealous pursuit of a beauty title.
Twenty-four years pass; Ruby has become Joey Lauren Adams ("Chasing Amy"), Mona has become Minnie Driver, and the two girls are still pursuing the elusive title of Miss American Miss. The chase is all Mona knows; she's constantly on the lookout for good publicity - when a woman at the supermarket goes into labor, Mona shouts, "I'm Miss Illinois, I have everything under control," and ends up pushing the unfortunate woman to the hospital in a shopping cart.
So total is Mona's zeal, that not even having a daughter - a no-no for Miss American Miss contestants - will deter her; she simply convinces Ruby to raise Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, of Diet Pepsi commercial fame) as her own.
But, in an outlandish plot contrivance for which the filmmakers ought to be ashamed, Ruby lands in jail just as the Miss American Miss pageant is about to begin. So Mona not only has to face the competition alone - a major problem, since she's as stupid as she is conniving - but also with Vanessa in tow.
"Beautiful" has its moments, and if the filmmakers - Field and screenwriter Jon Bernstein - had been perceptive enough to notice them, this would have been a much better film. The pageant segments are a stitch, featuring contestants with just enough talent to be awful (although Driver sings a surprisingly sultry "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"), and costumes that define the term "tacky." And, surprisingly, the scenes between Driver and Eisenberg work just fine (the young actress knows how to be cute and bratty).
Unfortunately, whenever "Beautiful" threatens to work as parody, it veers uncomfortably into pop psychology. Mona isn't simply self-centered because her mother never loved her, she never learned to love back. Such moments may or may not ring true, but they definitely grind the film to a halt.
Starring Minnie Driver, Joey Lauren Adams and Hallie Kate Eisenberg
Directed by Sally Field
Rated PG-13 (Language, adult situations)
Released by Destination Films
Running time 112 minutes
Sun score: **