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Lifetime's 'Dawn Anna': Tears of Endearment

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page C01

Cynics might dismiss "Dawn Anna" as a tearjerker, but what if it is? Life is a tearjerker, after all. And "Dawn Anna," the Lifetime Channel movie premiering tonight at 9, doesn't so much jerk tears as coax them. It is good to have a visceral reaction to a movie, and tears are tangible proof that the talents involved have reached your heart, or at least your vulnerabilities.

So much TV is merely numbing, even trance-inducing, but that's a charge that could never be made about this film.

Debra Winger as Anna with Quinn Singer as her daughter in the Lifetime Channel movie. (Lifetime)

"Dawn Anna" is yet another saga of a Lifetime superwoman, but Debra Winger in the title role helps make her entirely and encouragingly believable, as does the sensitive direction by Less R. Howard, probably a pseudonym for Arliss Howard, Winger's husband. You may be lucky enough to know someone like Anna or, if not, will wish you did long before the end of the film.

Just before the end -- maybe 15 or 20 minutes before -- the story takes a sudden dramatic turn that, unless someone has spoiled it for you, will give you an abrupt and dizzying shock. There's already been plenty of drama in the life of this single mother of four kids, most of them teenagers, but here comes one more incredibly traumatic crisis for her to deal with, and it's one that not even all the others could have prepared her for.

Maybe the movie should have been longer so as to give more time to this event in Anna and her family's life -- it's two hours now, 1:28 without commercials -- or maybe the proportions are somewhat out of whack and the crisis should have occurred earlier than it does. But quibbles are essentially pointless; the movie works wonderfully in its own way, and the assembled talents needed time to convince you that a family like Anna's isn't too good to be true.

They come across as both good and true, and one likes to assume America is filled with families where people behave as honorably and selflessly, with a few human stumbles, as this one. Not everything Anna and her four children do is praiseworthy and righteous, but there's an absence of petty bickering and no trace of maliciousness. Sitcoms and reality shows regularly celebrate the worst in people; "Dawn Anna," among other things, makes a case for simple honest values that one hates to think are "old-fashioned."

The story takes place between the springs of 1993 and 1999 in a Denver suburb where the family's house sits on a cheerfully normal-looking street, not dramatically different from the other homes in appearance but not cookie-cutterly cute, either. We're not told how long the family has been absent one spouse or exactly how he made his exit, but Anna, who doesn't like to be called "Dawn," is managing things very well.

She works as a substitute teacher but mounting bills force her to seek full-time employment, which she eventually gets, teaching high-schoolers and, for extra income, coaching the girls' volleyball team. About 20 minutes into the film, Anna begins to have blinding headaches and dizziness and we go "aw-oh" to ourselves. Here's the illness we suspected was coming. Anna had been too happy.

Winger -- who looks much differently than she did six years ago, when she began a kind of hiatus from most movie and TV work -- has done magnificent suffering on the screen before, of course, most notably in "Terms of Endearment," the only arguably great movie James L. Brooks ever made. But in "Dawn Anna," Winger doesn't just reprise anguish from a previous role. This character is unlike the free-spirited scamp she played in that other film.

Medical science fails Anna as it has failed so many others. Even diagnosing her malady is a challenge to the so-called professionals, though eventually it's discovered that she has a kind of brain tumor -- "blockage," it is called -- with some long and hard-to-pronounce technical name. One avenue of treatment is tried, and it fails, and Anna agrees to undergo brain surgery. At one point, when she casually turns away from the camera, we see the hideous snake-like scar running down the back of Anna's head, a graphic indication of how drastic the surgery was.

In fact, when her eyes first flutter open, with difficulty, upon waking from the anesthesia, Anna can't even speak. Walking must be relearned. Winger has a memorable little wordless scene in which we see her legs all but turn to rubber as she navigates a hallway at school; she is too disoriented to stand.

And yet, she is still determined to teach and coach, her spirits bolstered by the giant "Welcome Home, Mom" signs posted on the house by the kids and by her new boyfriend, a mild-mannered guy who looks a little like Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's goody-goody neighbor.

All hell will break loose before the movie is over, and Anna's resolve and ability to cope will be tested more rigorously than ever. Some of the images are achingly poignant: teenage daughter Lauren waiting and waiting for a chicken to hatch as part of a class experiment, then gloriously elated when it does; fellow teachers forming a long line at school with donations to help Anna with her humongous medical bills; one of her sons, having kept up a brave front for his mother's sake, sitting alone on a back staircase at the hospital and weeping; and the black-and-white memories in Anna's brain while surgeons are drilling into her skull.

A beautiful little movie, a stalwart little movie, "Dawn Anna" benefits tremendously from Winger's honesty and from unaffected performances all around. The only really objectionable thing is common to much of Lifetime's programming: Why does it have to be billed as entertainment "for women"? Don't the dopes at Lifetime know that men like a good cry, too?

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