A simple but meaningful character piece

There's a long and honoured tradition of naming films after old sentimental songs. Think of Stand By Me, Pretty Woman, La Bamba, and most recently, Sweet Home Alabama. Whether or not these title had anything to do with, the films themselves were pretty successful.

Enter "I'll Be There", not only a reference to the Jackson Five song, but a strong hint at the theme of this film. In a tale told since the dawn of time (or at least the sixties), we have an moody, aging performer reunited with the child with the child he never knew he fathered. Here, it's reclusive 80's rock star Paul Kerr, now considered irrelevant by his management, spending his time mostly drunk on his estate. The film opens with him riding his motorcycle around the inside of his house, climaxing in the classic crash-through-a-stained-glass-window-and-land-in-a-fountain routine.

Naturally, this makes the news. Everyone assumes Paul is suicidal, and he is tossed into an institution. Now is when people start crawling out of the woodwork. First, which is fairly necessary for the plot, we meet Rebecca and her daughter Olivia, as Rebecca reluctantly pops the news that the man in the looney bin is Olivia's father. Rebecca used to be a carefree spirit, but motherhood and the disappointment of Paul never acknowledging his daughter has turned her bitter and a proponent of the practical things, not the singing (too much like that deadbeat Paul's life) which Olivia seems to have some talent in.

Now, Paul really doesn't know he has a daughter. Rebecca sent letters, but were treated like so many pieces of fan mail. Despite her false understanding of the situation, she tells Olivia that Paul never knew, which makes the first meeting of the three in the insitution fail to resolve anything for Rebecca. For Paul and Olivia, though, this is the awakening of something they both have needed.

Once free of the shackles of psychiatry, Paul comes home, teetering on the edge of going overboard again, when an old Australian bandmate shows up to help out. He's been on the wagon for years, and moves in to help Paul sober up and face his responsibilities. The timing is fairly good, for Paul not only has to deal with having a daughter, but it turns out Rebecca is his great lost love, the one he dedicated an album to (very prominently on the back, which is in fact a little odd because any marketing sorts would insist a hot young commodity appear to be available to obsessive young fans with money).

The conflict is tightly wound between Paul, Rebecca, and Olivia. The motivations all feel right, and while the eventual conclusion isn't hard at all to guess, it's accomplished without being too convenient.

The film is ultimately a sentimental piece, but doesn't let that get in the way of the humor. And that humor consistently originates from character, which will always win points in my book.

The townspeople - which you may notice I haven't mentioned yet - are the one part of the film that doesn't work. They pass in and out of the story, as well as the local pub, helping push things along, with a few good laughs in the process, but I was left wondering what their relevance was. They don't really have their own story, but get just enough screentime to seem important. It feels like something was cut here, but I couldn't tell you whether it was in the script or after filming.

This film is the directorial debut of writer/producer/star Craig Ferguson, and he does a pretty good job, knowing not to get too fancy in a straightforward story such as this. I've been a fan of his films for a while, coming generally from a British system where story and character are still important.

Also debuting in the film is Charlotte Church, the well-known virtuous singer, as not-quite-legal Olivia. Apparently, she has had film offers before, but took her time in choosing a vehicle that fell well into the public image that has been groomed for her. Her performance is quite good, and her singing is amazing, though perhaps not sufficiently hip for a broad audience... but that's okay. The film itself is not likely to find that broad an audience in the States - those who are attracted to this sort of film will be open to the singing. Case closed.

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