Sally Field, as a director, shows her skill with her first feature film, Beautiful, a charming movie about mothers and daughters, friendship, and, of course, beauty contests.
The film is not very complicated.
In fact, one might consider the subject matter a tad on the "TV Movie of the Week" side. However, the performances, especially by Minnie Driver, bring the story to another level, and all at once, we can sit back and enjoy the simplicity of it.
Mona Hibbard (Driver) has wanted one thing her entire life: to be a beauty queen. When we first meet her, she is a gawky adolescent, with braces and a sheer determination to win something - anything -- in a beauty contest, even if it's the award for best shoes. Mona's mother could care less about her daughter's aspirations, and most of the time either totally ignores or ridicules her. This doesn't stop Mona, though. It just makes her work harder, even if she has to cheat and lie a little.
Mona then meets Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), a plain but sweet girl, and the two become friends, partly because Ruby can sew and Mona needs costumes. Ruby ends up as Mona's confidant and moral guide, and as the two grow up together, they focus on only one thing -- to get Mona crowned Miss America Miss.
However, a rather large wrench is thrown into their plans when Mona finds out she is pregnant. By rule, being a mom automatically disqualifies you from entering any beauty competition -- but leave it to Ruby to come up with a solution.
Jumping ahead seven years, Mona finally scores big by being crowned Miss Illinois, and her dreams of making it to the upcoming Miss America Miss pageant are finally coming true. Her daughter, Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), has been told since birth her mother is actually Ruby, and the 7-year-old tentatively believes the lie. However, things start to fall apart when Ruby is falsely accused of killing an elderly patient in her care, and is jailed.
Mona, for the first time, has to take care of Vanessa, and, desperate to have someone with her at the Miss America Miss pageant, takes the little girl.
The complications this causes at the pageant are many. Mona, at first, pretends she has no association with Vanessa because of the rules, much to Vanessa's aggravation. The other contestants get suspicious, as does a sneaky news reporter from Mona's hometown. Eventually, Mona gives in when Vanessa finally asks, "Why do I look so much like you?" - a question that forces Mona to look hard at herself and what she has become. And seeing this little girl, HER little girl, for the first time, she decides to make it better. The ending is refreshingly surprising and certainly an affirmation for mothers everywhere.
Minnie Driver once again proves she is an extremely talented actress. From her debut in Circle of Friends to her great performance in Good Will Hunting, her unique and quirky acting style comes through, elevating this simple story to new heights. If not for her, the film may have been regulated to a glorified TV movie. Hallie Kate Eisenberg (best known for her Pepsi commercials) also shines as Vanessa, rising above the "cutesy kid" syndrome. She steals scenes with ease.
Of course, the true test falls on director Sally Field, and she passes with flying colors. It is obvious that she knows how to direct her actors and is smart enough to pick material, which is easy to handle. At times, the action may be a bit contrived or sappy, but those moments are few and far between. Most importantly, it's obvious Field is a mother - and she brings the right sentiments to the screen.