Mary Stuart Masterson is one of the brightest of today’s young stars, as she has proved in gutsy supporting turns in At Close Range and Gardens of Stone and in an emotionally complex performance in the otherwise lightweight Some Kind of Wonderful. In My Little Girl, she finally gets to carry a movie as the central character.
My Little Girl isn’t quite worthy of her, and in fact it allows her little opportunity to showcase her talents. She plays Franny, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family; tennis, golf, and deciding whether to wear blue jeans or casual whites while yachting are the big issues of her life.
But this summer she’s volunteering at a shelter for girls, children who have been abandoned or whose parents are in jail. This may seem like a radical change, but Franny’s comfortable life has made her a bit uncomfortable. Besides, ever since she read The Grapes of Wrath, she’s been curious about the unseen world of the have-nots.
Soon she’s getting wrapped up in the problems of the girls, and volunteering full time. “But dear,” asks her mother back at the mansion, “what about your tennis lessons?” The mother and father, played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Peter Michael Goetz, are lampooned rather broadly.
Much of the film is taken up with Franny’s attempt to reach a rebellious girl (Traci Lin) who’s just itching to get back out on the streets and ruin her life. Franny’s other charges are two unresponsive sisters (Erika Alexander, Naeemah Wilmore) whose mother has committed a crime.
The film is scrupulously well-meaning, and is clearly made from the heart by writer director Connie Kaiserman, whose first film this is. Overall, she’s gotten effective work from the actors, and there are some fine supporting roles for James Earl Jones, as the home’s put upon boss; the late Geraldine Page, as Franny’s grandmother; and Peter Gallagher, as Lin’s shady boyfriend, who takes Franny on a creepy joyride to an airport runway.
Kaiserman draws some of the characters in stereotypes, despite the competent acting. Just like the kids at the shelter, drawing mustaches and horns on pictures of their parents, so Kaiserman has drawn the parents here in caricatured terms. And when the movie lurches into melodrama near the end, with a prison break, it loses the well-tuned ease of the scenes at the shelter.
In other words, it’s not difficult to see why the movie sat on the shelf for a while before getting a small release. My Little Girl is kept honest by Masterson’s non-fussy performance, however, which prevents the action around her from tipping completely into cliche.
First published in the Herald, April 7, 1988
Not a notable review on my part, but I wanted to include this film for a few reasons. It was the only directing credit for Kaiserman, who is an associate producer on five Merchant Ivory films (and this one was produced by Ismail Merchant). That might explain the level of talent collected here, which includes the heavyweight cast, composer Richard Robbins, and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. This was the first movie for Erika Alexander, as well as an ambitious striver named Jennifer Lopez. As for Masterson, she has had a long career, if not quite the one she seemed destined for around this time.