By Ken Tucker
September 11, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

The Space Between, which aired commercial-free Sunday night on the USA network, distinguished itself from the rest of the 9/11 tenth-anniversary programming by being a fictional movie, starring Melissa Leo (The Fighter). The film, written and directed by Travis Fine, told the story of Montine McLeod (Leo), a hard-edged flight attendant who finds herself the sudden, unwilling guardian of a young boy on her when their plane bound for Los Angeles is grounded on Sept. 11, 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

The boy, 10 year-old Omar Hassan (Anthony Keyvan), is a Pakistani-American on his way to a Muslim boarding school in L.A. When the flight is interrupted, Montine and Omar try to get back to New York City, by bus and then by car, getting to know each other and forming an uneasy alliance. Montine is grumpy and bitter — a discipline problem on her job, a heavy drinker off — while Omar is a highly intelligent young man trying to adhere to the tenets of his faith as taught him by his father, a single parent who had a restaurant job in one of the World Trade Center towers.

The Space Between was honorably sentimental, tilted toward the poignance of a boy who assumes, watching TV footage as he makes his way cross-country, that his father is dead. For her part, Mondine feels the burden of this boy as she struggled with her unhappy past — a dead husband, killed in the Oklahoma city bombing, and a dying mother have left her trying to numb her life with alcohol. As might be expected in a TV-movie drama, the woman and the boy find common ground in their grief.

Weeds‘ Hunter Parrish, October Road‘s Brad William Henke, Perfect Couples‘ Kyle Bornheimer, and Lie To Me‘s Kelli Williams all popped up in small roles in a production that was clearly a low-budget labor of love.

A theatrical film the debuted at the Tribeca Film Fstival, The Space Between probably received the best showcase it could in a TV broadcast. It skirted a Hallmark Hall of Fame mawkishness thanks to the forthright performance by Leo and the clear-eyed, never-cute one by Keyvan.

Twitter: @kentucker