Early this year, Hallmark Hall of Fame productions made a drastic change. It moved from its long-time “permanent” home on CBS to ABC. The move took fans by surprise as we immediately wondered if this wonderful series was coming to an end after over two-hundred films. Once surprise wore off, it was more a question of why CBS ended it since it the films were always well received. Now it has moved to another network, I’ve watched the last few with some disappointment. This one was, likewise viewed with trepidation.
There isn’t much you can do when a young person decides to throw away their life – even if it is a life riddled with broken hearts. As a counselor at a correctional facility, D.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) doesn’t have an easy job. Every day, he sees broken young people whose lives are not only ruined by the choices they’ve made but are suffering broken souls from neglect, or terrible childhood or domestic abuse. The facility houses only women and D.J. sees – despite the attitudes and pasts, these women are better than what they think in their capacity as convicts. Instead of merely counseling them to betterment, D.J. comes up with a program that will show the girls they can do good works – to help them feel a sense of belonging and hope in heroic acts they train for. Then he meets Caroline (Q’orianka Kilcher).
Only seventeen, she is embittered and angry over being betrayed by a boyfriend she thought loved her – and yet still, she forgives him. Caroline seems like the one girl D.J. has to work extra hard at reaching. Her past has made her hard to the world and any relationships that may result from interacting with others but D.J. sees something in Caroline that her fellow inmates who seem only interested in taunting her do not. Determined to reach her, he encourages Caroline to join Crew 9; a team that not only fights forest fires but also saves civilian lives – offering each of these women a chance at redemption in the process. Crew leader, Terri (DeWanda Wise) has a past that every day she re-lives – a single moment she would give almost anything to change. Feeling as if Caroline could use a friend, through D.J. and Terri’s help, she may be able to “buy herself back,” learning to live again.
In case I haven’t told you all, generally speaking, I love the productions that Hallmark Hall of Fame brings to our television screens. This one was probably one of the most heavily promoted that I’d ever seen. Its TV spot aired at least three times in a programming spot of two hours and used Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” as its go-to song on the trailer. In the lyrics, “What doesn’t kill [you] makes [you] stronger…” the movie’s purpose is captured. To my surprise, Firelight is a memorable piece of film work. Directed by a familiar name to Hallmark as well as scripted by a screen writer who is no stranger to Hallmark, the movie also has a small host of well-known celebrities behind-the-scenes, and was produced by Brent Shields (Beyond the Blackboard, Loving Leah, The Russell Girl, and countless others) – yet another familiar name who is no stranger to television productions.
Primarily, the movie feels like it is Caroline’s story. It opens telling us why she is sent to the facility but as the film progresses, we know little of her history – why she made the decisions she did. We make an educated guess that she was abused and hear she is a “runaway,” leading to the assumption that she is either in foster care or has a parent still living but they don’t care about her one way or another. These two hours are most kind to Terri in terms of a back-story. We learn the pain of her past and can “feel” it through the screen – we understand why she is a broken soul who has still managed to “move on” in spite of the mistake that cost her not just her once happy, carefree life but also the eventual loss of her mother whom she cannot “help.”
Anyone who is familiar with Kilcher’s name or work will know what kind of actress she is. Her face usually remains expressionless and is often… almost angry. This role is no different, first appearing on the scene in the Pocahontas story, The New World (I’d seriously council those who may not have seen that movie to never bother with it – sorry, fans, but it was just… painfully bad). This role is no different. Her anger and sorrow is evident in nearly every frame she is in, rarely does she even crack a smile but then, that is perfectly suited to her character here. Each and every one of the ladies in this film were phenomenal – Wise plays Terri with the right amount of raw emotion and heartbreak while also being a girl who is going through a very painstaking healing process. Then there is Cuba Gooding Jr. He is equally marvelous in his role – as usual, the cast make the movie what it is. There are a lot of emotions in this movie. Sorrow that a girl repeats her mistakes and cannot make good on her second chance. Disappointment that another refuses her father. Heartbreak when we realize the extent of the reasons behind some of the girls winding up where they did. Poignancy is a part of the script in many ways, and despite a typically Hallmark ending that is ambiguous (I can think of one ending I’d have really liked), the movie is a solid piece of filming. There are tears, yes, but it is a tale of redemption that ultimately will triumph over temptations. That is what leads to a smile.
Here is the trailer:
(What to know: Rated TVPG, there are implications one of the girls has a child [presumably out-of-wedlock]; the girls pick fights and attempt to injure the “new” girl [nothing graphic]. Another girl re-counts her crime [a hit and run]. There are two dramatic rescues; one involves a fire, another shows a car lying on its side after going over a cliff but again, nothing is graphically depicted. There are implications of abuse and conversations about joining gangs.)