”Oh, the things you do for your kids,” sighs Holly Hunter in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Hunter (Broadcast News) is playing Wanda Holloway, a real-life housewife in a town outside Houston, and what Wanda does for her kid in this TV movie is try to arrange a murder. She decides that the mother of her daughter’s chief rival for a position on the high school cheerleading team deserves to die.
Holloway’s misadventures in maternal devotion above and beyond the call of duty became a media sensation in 1991, and late last year, they were presented in a tense psychodrama of a TV movie on ABC, Willing to Kill, with Lesley Ann Warren doing a fine job as a flighty, clenched Holloway. But as its poke-in-the-ribs title suggests, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom doesn’t contain typically grim, made-for-TV moralizing; it looks at the case as if it were a farce, a suburban absurdity involving confused, mule-headed, but basically likable people.
In Positively True, Wanda is fiercely absorbed in getting her daughter, Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia), on the cheerleading squad — pushing her through grueling rehearsals, arguing with mothers on the cheerleader committee. When Shanna fails to make the team, a furious Wanda is convinced that Shanna’s spot went to Amber (Megan Berwick), the daughter of neighbor Verna Heath (Elizabeth Ruscio). Something seems to explode inside Wanda, and soon she’s talking to her former brother-in-law, Terry Harper (Fabulous Baker Boy Beau Bridges), about hiring a hit man to off Verna.
In the script by playwright and TV writer Jane Anderson (The Wonder Years), Terry is a genially disreputable character who lives in a decrepit trailer with his wife, Marla. Marla’s played by Sisters’ Swoosie Kurtz as a zoned-out, wide-eyed harridan who’s either very peculiar or genuinely disturbed. When Terry calls her ”a crazy woman,” she shrieks, ”Crazy women are made by crazy men!” (Kurtz makes the most of a small role that’s much closer to the colorful eccentrics she has portrayed on the New York stage than the more conventional suburbanite she portrays on Sisters.)
Terry loves his niece Shanna, and, in this production, at first figures his sister-in-law Wanda must have good reason to see Verna Heath dead. When he discovers the slim reason for the crime, however, Terry goes to the police, and Wanda is arrested for planning a murder. She’s convicted and receives a 15-year sentence, but then a mistrial is declared — one of the jurors is found to have been a convicted felon.
But this is only half the story that Positively True wants to tell; the rest of it involves the media’s efforts to turn this odd tale into tabloid entertainment. We’re shown the way everything from People magazine to A Current Affair sought to cover the story; we watch, along with Wanda, as Johnny Carson tells a joke about her case on The Tonight Show. When Verna — who was never harmed and, indeed, was remarkably sympathetic to Holloway even after the trial — is asked who she thinks should play Wanda in the ABC TV movie, she says, ”I think it should be Susan Lucci — she is Wanda.” In this movie, everyone is media-savvy; even young Shanna tries to negotiate the sale of her side of the story.
Positively True was directed by Michael Ritchie, who has also overseen such feature films as The Candidate, the recent flop Diggstown, and, most to the point here, Smile. That underrated 1975 comedy was a closely observed satire of small-town beauty pageants; like Positively True, Smile found humor in social rituals, but not at the expense of the people who participate in them. When Pauline Kael wrote about Smile in The New Yorker, she praised the way Ritchie ”supplies wonderful details of frazzled behavior,” a quality that also makes Positively True such a pleasure. The movie gets its best laughs from quick, throwaway scenes, such as one in which Wanda sits in church one Sunday and listens, startled, as the minister says, ”Let us all take a moment now for a silent meditation for our parishioners who are sick, troubled, or indicted.”
As Wanda, Hunter speaks in a low Texas drawl, with a twang so throaty it’s sometimes difficult to understand what she’s saying; far from being annoying, however, her manner of speaking only adds to her character’s intensity. Hunter and Ritchie have fashioned a witty criticism of the way pop culture drives people to extremes — and sometimes, if only for a little while, crazy. A