As sweeps-period fact-based fodder, In the Best Interest of the Children certainly live up to the clichés of keeping you glued to the set and put through the wringer. In the Best Interest of the Children is based on a late — ’80s custody case involving five Iowa children who wanted to continue living with their foster parents rather than return to the single mother who allegedly neglected them.
This NBC television movie have aspirations to be more than cynical counter-programming to CBS’ Winter Olympics coverage. In In the Best Interest, director Michael Ray Rhodes (Babies) is very good at depicting the hardscrabble lives of a just-barely lower-middle-class family led by Callie Cain, played by Sarah Jessica Parker (Equal Justice, L.A. Story).
At the start of the movie, Callie and her five children have recently moved into a cramped, dingy little rented house in Estherville, Iowa. At first, Callie works long hours at menial jobs; her kids are taunted at school for wearing ”garbage-can clothes.” Callie soon gives up and sits at home in a depressed stupor; a succession of crude boyfriends leaves a trail across her bed, and most of them pause to give one or two of the children a good swat in the head.
Pretty soon, it becomes obvious to us that Callie isn’t just a dispirited young woman — she seems clinically depressed, frequently unable to rouse herself to care for her family. Her oldest child, teenaged Jessica (Sarah, Plain and Tall’s Lexi Randall), tries, heroically, to take over as the head of the house, but the state’s human-services office steps in and whisks Jessica, her three sisters, and baby brother off to the foster care of a cheerful local farm couple, Patty and Harlan Pepper, played by Sally Struthers and John Dennis Johnston. (All the names in this docudrama, by the way, have been fictionalized.)
After the physical and emotional pummeling these kids take in the film’s first half, their chipper scenes with Struthers — she calls them ”my li’l pumpkins” and cuddles them constantly — aren’t corny: They’re a blessed relief. I didn’t even mind having my tears jerked when one of the children looks up at Patty and Harlan and whispers, ”Can we call you Mom and Dad?”
But then Callie, who has checked herself into a state psychiatric unit and been pumped up with can-do therapy, demands her children back. Patty and Harlan want, of course, to keep their five little neo-Peppers, and the kids prefer three square meals in a warm farmhouse to an erratic, wastrel mother in a drafty shack. A court battle ensues, featuring an even more blustery than usual Elizabeth Ashley (Evening Shade) as the children’s lawyer. Long on both harrowing realism and teary sentimentality, In the Best Interest of the Children features solid acting and one standout performance — young Randall’s brave, lonely Jessica — and is a model of all-out, reality-rooted melodrama. B+