One good thing about made-for-television movies is that they can be tailored for the family audience. It's all right to get sentimental around the edges - as long as there is some genuine feeling and at least one authentic insight at the story's core.
And such is The Wishing Tree (Showtime, Feb. 20, 8-9:35 p.m.). It has a few problems as a drama, but it has a good heart, a timely moral, and at least one fine performance. Alfre Woodard ("Mumford," "Down in the Delta") is always worth watching.
In this case, Ms. Woodard plays Clara Collier, a successful Atlanta lawyer with her own firm, who is called back home to Savannah, Ga., by the death of her mother. She is reunited with the adoptive white family who, 32 years ago, took care of mother Mattie and Clara. The family, including Professor Caldwell (Leslie Carlson) and his daughter, Wallis Clayton (Helen Shaver), welcomes Clara with opens arms.
But Mattie (Mary Alice), a superb storyteller, still has something to teach her daughter about faith in goodness through videotapes she left behind.
One of the stories tells of a slave girl who ran away from a brutal master. The dogs are set on her and she climbs a tree to escape. Sitting in the tree, she wishes she were far away and safe. And though the master and his henchmen shoot up into the branches, the girl disappears only to awake under another tall tree in Philadelphia, free.
"The Wishing Tree" captures the imagination of Wallis's young son Jamie and his little girlfriend, and they set off to find it. Deep in the woods, they meet a kind man who does magic tricks. He is African-American and mute, but he teaches them sign language. The children take Clara to meet the "magic man" (Blair Underwood), and finding him charming, Clara agrees to keep the friendship secret.
The emotional complications of the story revolve around difference and trust. Clara is acutely aware of her difference as a black woman who grew up poor and dependent on what she mistakenly thinks is Caldwell's and Wallis's charity. Magic Man, whose name is Thomas, is differently abled - and so mistrusted and misunderstood.
When little Jamie (Stephen Joffee) is hurt in the woods, Wallis jumps to the conclusion that Thomas hurt the child. It takes Clara's insightful investigation to solve the mystery. The film does not say that children should trust any stranger who crosses their path, but it points out that instant rejection of those who are different is cruel and foolish, too.
Blacks and whites live in close proximity and treat each other, for the most part, decently as equals. It is refreshing to see a film in which people are kind, polite, and ready to help a friend in need.
'Mystery!' makes its mark
Mystery! is celebrating its 20th season on PBS this year. On Feb. 24, Mystery! presents Trial by Fire (9-11 p.m.) starring Juliet Stevenson in the role of prosecutor Helen West.
West has moved to the suburbs outside London with her friend, Chief Inspector Geoffrey Bailey (the always riveting Jim Carter). When a woman's decomposed body is found in the woods, Bailey thinks he has sewn up the case. But West believes it's all too easy, and begins to dig deeper.
A prosecutor who does not accept the easiest answer is an unusual figure on TV. Think about "Law and Order" with the tenacious prosecutors working in tandem with the police - they are almost never wrong, and they usually go after the most obvious suspect.
West says, at the film's end, that the law is not futile. And much of what is wrong with the portrayal of justice in American TV shows is instantly put into perspective. It's the truth that matters to West.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society