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A tale of love, motherhood and friendship
Entertaining and funny, 'Beautiful' goes beyond skin deep
(CNN) -- "Beautiful" is yet another tale exploring the strange little subculture of American beauty pageants. But instead of just looking at the overall milieu of women competing for tin tiaras, it focuses on one woman's heartfelt and funny journey in search of what beauty really means.
"Beautiful" stars Minnie Driver and is helmed by first-time feature film director (and two-time Academy Award winner) Sally Field. Driver plays Mona Hibbard, a gutsy young woman determined to will herself into becoming a beauty queen, escaping her unhappy childhood and her decidedly unglamorous life in the process.
Like Don Quixote, who followed his impossible dream in "Man of La Mancha" (1972) with assistant Sancho Panza in tow, Mona is assisted by her own Panza: her childhood chum Ruby, played winningly by Joey Lauren Adams. You may remember Adams for her breakthrough role as the whiny-voiced Amy in "Chasing Amy" (1997); thankfully, she doesn't bring that voice to this role.
Two friends, one dream
We first meet Mona and Ruby at age 12, played respectively by Colleen Rennison and Jacqueline Steiger. Both are square pegs trying desperately to fit into their round-holed existences. They find solace in each other and in Mona's dreams for acceptance and validation in local beauty contests.
Mona's mother, Nedra (Linda Hart), and her useless stepfather, Lurdy (Brent Briscoe), are not just unsupportive of Mona's dreams; they're oblivious to them. Mona responds by shutting herself -- and her dreams -- into her bedroom, which she transforms into a shrine to her hopes.
As a pageant participant, Mona (accompanied by Ruby, who makes her elaborate costumes) approaches each contest as if were the landing at Normandy. Her single-mindedness is stunning as she connives and battles her way toward her ultimate goal: Miss American Miss.
Now we flash forward. Through sheer will power, Mona (now played by Driver), has transformed herself into the picture-perfect beauty queen. Then, disaster! Mona discovers she's pregnant, and being a mother is against all the rules in the world of beauty pageants. What's a contestant to do?
Mona, despite her apparent shallowness, doesn't terminate the pregnancy. She has the child, named Vanessa, and Ruby steps in and poses as her mother.
Vanessa is played with astounding assurance by 8-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, whom viewers no doubt will recognize as that posturing kid in the Pepsi commercials. Vanessa grows up thinking Ruby is her mom, while Mona is just her mother's best friend. Never mind that Vanessa is a dead ringer for Mona.
Finally crowned Miss Illinois, Mona is the verge of a national title -- Miss American Miss. At the same time, Ruby suddenly finds herself embroiled in her own personal crisis; she's unable to help Mona during her moment of truth.
Reluctantly Mona drags her illegitimate daughter along to the pageant. Once there, her enemies -- there are many left in Mona's spike-heeled path toward becoming a beauty queen -- gang up on her. They threaten to expose Mona's secret and take away everything for which she's worked all her life.
Realizing she's in a tough spot, Mona says she must "choose between being a make-believe role model for thousands of little girls, or a real life role model for one."
Strong characters, good directing
Driver portrays Mona perfectly, with a straight-forward angst and earnestness that never plays for the joke. Mona is dead serious, which makes her extremely funny, eminently touching and exceedingly frustrating. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want to wring her neck. Her self-centeredness is a landslide, a hurricane, an earthquake -- a force of nature no one can stop.
Adams' role as Ruby is deceptively complex. She has to display utter devotion both to Mona and Vanessa to make viewers believe her character isn't a total schmuck for putting up with Mona's antics.
Eisenberg plays feisty Vanessa to perfection. She's a veteran, having already appeared in three feature films, plus a handful of made-for-TV movies. She is also memorable in a series of promotional spots for The Independent Film Channel in which she plays a temperamental independent film director named Christie. And the next time you reach for a Pepsi, remember her face.
Other performances worth mentioning include a small role by Kathleen Turner as Verna Chickle, a beauty pageant specialist who tries to mold Mona's steely determination. And Leslie Stefanson, as inquiring reporter Joyce Parkins, is as single-minded in her zeal to bring Mona down as the contestant is to win.
Director Field stands back and gives her actors plenty of room to develop their characters. She has a nice eye for visual transitions between scenes, too. As the woman who played the title role in "Norma Rae" (1979), Field also knows about underdogs who go through major obstacles to find their dreams.
"Beautiful" no doubt will be labeled a chick flick, and it is unarguably aimed at a female audience. But don't let that be your sole viewing guide. The emotions involved in wanting to find a place in life, of having the determination to make dreams come true, is a universal theme.
"Beautiful" opens nationwide on Friday September 29 and is rated PG-13 with a running time of 112 minutes.
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