If my candor approaches rudeness, you’ll have to forgive me,” says Kirstie Alley in the midst of being David’s Mother. David is a 17-year-old with autism; Alley is Sally Goodson, whose devotion to her son is so intense, it has ruined just about everything else in her life. Sally’s husband (Chris Sarandon) has left her because she makes time for no one except David. And David, played by Michael Goorjian (Life Goes On), never responds to his mother, never even makes eye contact, and so Sally’s incessant remarks to him — gentle instructions, blunt jokes, spat-out criticisms — are an unending monologue.
Unmindful of her own appearance, so busy trying to teach David to use silverware that she neglects to brush her own hair (”I am not playing Miracle Worker here, David — use the spoon!”), Sally is well aware that she strikes other people as a hostile frump. So she talks and talks, narrating her life with David with a glowingly bitter sarcasm. After trying in vain to get David to tell her whether he’d prefer a frozen TV dinner with lasagna or cabbage rolls, she crows with self-disgust, ”Now, this is living!”
It’s this sharply unsentimental tone that immediately distinguishes David’s Mother from the general run of TV movies dealing with physical or mental illness. Alley plays Sally as a ferociously angry, intelligent woman who long ago discarded her pride and her dignity. It’s a fearless performance — Alley isn’t afraid to make herself seem mean or pathetic. Or wrong: After a while, it becomes clear that no matter how much she loves her son, Sally’s obsessive attention is probably not the only sort of care that David needs. Alley uses all the comic skills she developed on Cheers to make Sally’s alienation from the rest of the world frequently hilarious; David’s Mother is one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying melodramas that, thanks to Alley, actually taps into deeper emotions.
Alley receives strong support from Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation) as Sally’s rueful, witty sister, and from Sam Waterston as an innocent sap of a wallpaper-store owner who meets Sally on a blind date and is foolish enough to fall in love with her. Waterston’s role is particularly tricky to pull off — he must be charming and commanding enough to compel Sally to share her life with him, yet also naive enough to be comically appalled by Sally’s tough-love methods with David. Waterston makes this ungainly fellow believable.
David’s Mother, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, is based on a play by Bob Randall (Kate & Allie); his television adaptation verges on the hokey — some of the lines seek pity for Sally. Then too, there’s a weak subplot about a social worker (The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad) who threatens to take David away from Sally if she refuses to enroll him in a school for autistic children. The purpose of Rashad’s character is to provide some outside tension, but the jangling nerves in Sally’s dingy apartment provide quite enough, thank you. Besides, from Rashad’s first appearance, it is obvious that she is much too smart and understanding a person to carry through on the patently foolish idea of separating David from Sally.
By refusing to idealize the difficulty of Sally’s situation, the movie ends up giving the character of David a complexity and dignity he wouldn’t otherwise have. When, in a supermarket, Sally says to a little girl who’s gawking at David, ”Stop staring — you’re not so pretty yourself,” you might find yourself applauding. A-