The Annie in A Place for Annie is a heroin-addicted, HIV-positive 8-week-old cutie, satisfyingly plump and given to much lusty crying. Sissy Spacek is Susan Lansing, the overworked supervising nurse in a hospital neonatal intensive-care unit. A single mother with a teenage son (Jack Noseworthy), she’s drawn to this baby in a way she can’t explain. When she learns that the hospital is having trouble finding Annie a foster home, Susan takes the baby in herself. But before she can legally adopt Annie, the girl’s mother-an AIDS-infected ex-addict named Linda, played by Mary- Louise Parker (Fried Green Tomatoes)-appears to reclaim her now 1-year-old child.
The two women loathe each other instantly. Susan calls Linda ”sleazy” and an ”airheaded junkie”; the working-class Linda thinks of middle-class Susan as a privileged harridan. When Linda wins custody rights to her daughter in court, Susan, desperate to keep from losing Annie, invites the destitute Linda to move in with her. She does.
This Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, written by Cathleen Young and Lee Guthrie, may sound like a load of timely cliches and maudlin coincidences, but, in fact, it comes through the screen like a crisp, well-constructed play. There’s a quick inevitability to the idea that Linda would end up under the same roof with Susan—it’s the only way these two can come to terms with each other, and the writers take care not to soften the antagonism. Along the way, A Place for Annie offers lots of information about HIV infection, yet it’s not a lecturing ”message” film, but rather a story about unlikely partnerships.
To pull off material like this, you need actors who’ll work against the grain of the intense emotions, and A Place for Annie is filled with winning performers. As Spacek has gotten older, her manner has become very no- nonsense-she’s tart, vinegary, in an enjoyable way. She subtly conveys varying degrees of Susan’s weariness: Her exhaustion on the job is different from the loving tiredness she feels taking care of a newborn.
Parker has the difficult job of making us care about her deeply unsympathetic character. I mean, she’s not just a recovering drug abuser who’s mean to Sissy Spacek—she’s a dirty-fingernailed chain-smoker in a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie! Parker manages to give Linda a kind of battered dignity that keeps the character intriguing. And Noseworthy is every bit as good in the equally tricky role of a self-absorbed teenager who’s required to become a loving brother to Annie in an all-too-brief amount of time.
The distinguished Joan Plowright plays the baby’s nanny. It’s a measure of Plowright’s skill and presence that she takes a small part that’s nearly superfluous, and turns it into an important role-the voice of reason that mediates between Susan and Linda.
There are a few crucial twists in this TV movie that don’t bear giving away. You’ll probably cry, but you won’t feel manipulated. A Place for Annie is the kind of melodrama that gives tear-jerking a good name.