The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom
First screened in Spring 1995; reviewed in Summer 1998
Director: Michael Ritchie. TV Movie. Cast: Holly Hunter, Beau Bridges, Swoosie Kurtz, Elizabeth Ruscio, Frankie Ingrassia, Gregg Henry, Eddie Jones, Matt Frewer, Megan Berwick, Andy Richter. Screenplay: Jane Anderson.
Twitter Capsule: Hunter is unbeatable and splendid spoof fully earns her

Photo © 1993 HBO Pictures
Michael Ritchie's The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader- Murdering Mom, originally made for HBO, is an uproarious, grotesque, involving, and original picture that laugh for laugh put every comedy released in theaters in 1993 to shame. And most of the dramas. Hell, throw in the documentaries. Movies don't come much funnier or better than this.

Working from a dazzling script by Jane Anderson, Ritchie performs a wizardly balancing act with this picture. Yes, as its baroquely sensational title implies, The Positively True Adventures spins out the tale of one of America's tawdriest recent tabloid fests. The film also comments on our very fascination with such stories, however, and even more impressively, the film manages to neither reduce these characters merely to strident caricatures, nor snidely reprimand us for being so interested in their drama. These characters are, after all, human beings, the film insists, but sometimes human beings are so doggone strange, or get themselves us to such spectacularly wrong-headed adventures, who could help but be compelled?

Holly Hunter stars as Wanda Holloway, a woman who is equal parts firecracker, buzzard, magnolia, and Gatling gun. Wanda was once married to Tony Harper (Gregg Henry), with whom she had a son named Shane (Frederick Koehler) and a daughter, Shanna (Frankie Inglassia). Now Wanda's married to C.D. Holloway (Eddie Jones), who watches his wife and her children ricochet around the house, and against each other, but he mostly just sits in his easy chair and chews his metaphorical cud. Watches TV. Smokes. He doesn't talk much. No matter, really, since Wanda talks enough for a household or two.

Meanwhile, Tony has a brother named Terry (Beau Bridges), whose life is a mess, though a good-spirited one. He can't find better work outside the local oil refinery, but he tries to do his job well. He goes a little heavy on the beer, but he's set up his own personal Five Year Plan to amend his errant ways. He's also married to a certifiable kook named Marla (Swoosie Kurtz), who hallucinates about something called "wig-fur" and sprays Drain-o on her skin, but...well, he doesn't quite know what to do about her. These people have gone off the deep end so long ago that normalcy is hardly a relevant concept. Their lunacy, though fairly benign, is so graduated that we almost can' t blame them for their various involvements in the farce that ensues. We have the feeling that they would have all eventually been up to something or other, given enough time.

What they ultimately get up to, of course, is by now fairly well-publicized, though the film knows it's set in a world where the rehashing of dirty details everyone already knows is the ultimate, jubilant delight. Wanda cannot accept that Shanna has been disqualified from her middle school's cheerleading elections, due in fact to Wanda's own knowing disobeyance of school policy for such campaigns.

Genuinely lacking awareness of her own bullishness, Wanda blames Shanna's disgrace on the Heath family, specifically mother Verna (Elizabeth Ruscio) and daughter Amber (Megan Berwick). Not only did Amber make the squad—and the film makes clear that her cheerleading skills are vastly superior to Shanna's—but the Heaths are hard-working, clean-cut citizens whose social adeptness and easy competence Wanda writes off, and not totally without reason, as snottiness. Then she reimagines that élitism as malice, then as actual conspiracy.

She is utterly incorrect. It doesn't matter. She figures out a way to cajole Terry into her plan: the plan to kill Verna Heath, or maybe just maim her, or maybe her daughter. Or maybe both. Wanda is simultaneously nuts enough to get these notions and too nuts to formulate a coherent strategy. Nonetheless, she manipulates Terry's history of minor infractions to prohibit his running to the police. And she keeps laughing, as do we.

Much of the joy of The Positively True Adventures comes from watching the events in these lives and the decisions of these characters unfold, so I won't reveal too much here. No one involved escapes the movie without some egg on their face, but Ritchie is too charmed by the dizzy, jaw-dropping madness of this story to really be too hard on them. He knows that if we as readers, or viewers, or headline-conscious Americans, can get hooked into the details of this story, we are not too far removed in our morality from the actual persons involved. There can be no finger-pointing here.

That sense of equanimity is one of the movie's key assets. The other is its indisputable riotousness, and both the compassion and the comedy of The Positively True Adventures are united in Hunter's magnificent, arresting performance as Wanda. It's a testament to this actress' unique, incredible talents that she won an Emmy for this mile-a-minute mouth-runner within a year of her Oscar-winning work as the silent heroine of The Piano. Her hair tightly teased and permed—or tackily feathered and frosted in the film's hysterical faux-documentary sections, where Wanda reveals the full extent of her delusion and defensiveness—Hunter crackles and percolates. She fires ultimatums ("I'll put Shanna on the phone," she threatens Tony, "and you can tell her how much you just don't care!"), questions ("What do I wear for jail?"), and self-acquittals ("I can't get a break anywhere, it's not even funny, okay!") out of a pink-lipsticked mouth as razor-sharp as her own determination.

Remarkably, Hunter even makes Wanda vaguely sympathetic. If it weren't for her own competition in The Piano, her performance here would easily go down as the best by an actress in 1993. She certainly provides godsend-level relief from Wanda's own prediction in the movie that her story will probably become some "TV movie starring Barbara Eden or someone like 'at."

The rest of the cast, including the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Bridges, is colorfully deranged, but not so much so that we don't still care what happens to them. Anderson's script, which also earned an Emmy, manages to divide the good lines almost evenly among the cast. Much like Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap, most of the jokes derive from the characters' own personalities and philosophies, so almost every dialogue exchange in the film elicits hearty chuckles; at least half of them are worthy of full guffaws. Analogies to Spinal Tap also include the film's inspired use of original songs and outlandish wardrobes to tickle the funny bones.

Wanda's trial at the end of the picture is paced a little too slowly, and the end of the film feels a tad truncated, but perhaps these are intentional gestures by Ritchie and Anderson to heighten the perversity. While most films with similar plots build to climactic, protracted trials, theirs ends in a cursory day in court that passes quickly and unmemorably. Certainly Wanda's picaresque through the penal and judicial systems are less interesting than the carnival her life has already long been before she officially ran afoul of the law.

Speaking of being on trial, though, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom provides more than enough evidence for an airtight defense that made-for-television pictures can prove just as entertaining, crafty, and satisfying as theatrical releases. No, I don't think the average tele-pic would necessarily stand up well in moviehouses, but Ritchie proves they can be made on that high caliber. Besides, most theatrically-released films don't stand up well in moviehouses, anyway, so why split hairs? Ritchie's film and Hunter's performance are positively and truly adventures unto themselves. Grade: A–

Emmy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Made-for-Television Movie
Best Director (TV Movie/Miniseries)
Best Actress (TV Movie/Miniseries): Holly Hunter
Best Supporting Actor (TV Movie/Miniseries): Beau Bridges
Best Screenplay (TV Movie/Miniseries): Jane Anderson
Best Sound Effects: Joseph Melody, et al.

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (TV Movie/Miniseries): Holly Hunter
Best Supporting Actor (Television): Beau Bridges

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director (TV Movie)
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay (TV Movie)

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