There's something about slightly gawky, smart-alecky, independent little girls from New York City that never fails to charm. They can't be older than 13, can't be too pretty, and must be adventurous without being foolhardy. It helps if, like Jenny in "Mom, the Wolfman and Me," which airs tonight on Channel 20 at 8, they wear "A Chorus Line" T-shirts and have little idiosyncracies like having a favorite snack of "B.B. and C.," or bread, butter and caviar. Now there's a girl after my own heart.
This is a two-hour film, based on a story that originally appeared in Ms. magazine, to drive the right-wing evangelicals out of their minds. This is the kind of television that gets attacked for the wrong reasons -- for the fact that Jenny's mother is determinedly unmarried, for example, or because she has boyfriends who "stay over."
In one scene 11-year-old Jenny and her more sophisticated pal are sneaking a look at the friend's mother's copy of "The Joy of Sex." "It looks like wrestling," says Jenny. "My mom hates exercise so I don't think she'd do anything like this."
The plot has to do with a moderately dashing New York free-lance photographer, played by Patty Duke Astin, her daughter Jenny, played by Danielle Brisebois ("Stephanie" in "All in the Family"), and a charming ex-Peace Corps volunteer, David Birney, who wants to get married and settle down. He is the Wolfman.
Mom is somewhat excessively liberated, anti-marriage, and has passed these attitudes along to her daughter. "Why get on a plane you know is going to crash?" Jenny asks her friend. Mom is also kooky, a person her psychiatrist father describes as someone who doesn't cook, but "heats." In fact, as played by Astin, she is irritatingly irresponsible, a Holly Golightly without the charm. Astin, as good an actress as she is, always seems to be ready to make a list or organize her bureau drawers rather than stay up all night on a whim. Her daughter makes her coffee, takes care of her photography bookings, and gamely makes do with the vagaries of Life With Mother.
The best parts of of the film are the relationships developed between Jenny and her grandfather, between Keenan Wynn and Viveca Lindfors as the grandparents, between Jenny and wonderful John Lithgow (Mom's cruelly discarded beau), and Jenny and the Wolfman. Obviously, without Jenny this picture would be nowhere.
The story is really about love, and why it's important and sometimes hard, and how even super-sophisticated liberated persons are better for it. Although it drags on a bit toward the end, and occassionally gets preachy, the wit of the script and the wisdom of the acting helps carry it off. p
"When you combine sex and love it becomes pretty powerful," Mom explains to Jenny in one of their heart to hearts.
"I think i'm going to throw up," Jenny responds.
Modern life gets a couple friendly jabs in a few scenes, such as the sign at Jenny's school for Fathers Day that says "Welcome Fathers and Father Figure." Or the little girl whose mother won't let her eat brownies because she'll have cellulite on her thighs when she grows up. It's so much fun to snicker at New Yorkers. Maybe this movie is also trying to tell us that New Yorkers can be people too.