Most people ride a city bus because they need to get somewhere. Not Beth Simon. She rides because the bus itself is where she needs to be, and the bus driver and her fellow passengers are her main connections to the world.
Beth is a developmentally disabled woman and one of the two main characters in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation Riding the Bus With My Sister, which will air Sunday night at 9 on CBS (WTOL-TV, Channel 11 in Toledo).
The story of Beth and her sister, Rachel, is based on a bestselling memoir of the same name written by Rachel Simon. The role of Beth is played with surprising depth by Rosie O'Donnell in her first major television appearance since her talk show ended in 2002. Rachel is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day, Four Weddings and a Funeral).
The two sisters lead very different lives. Rachel is a successful and self-absorbed fashion photographer in New York City, living in a chic but sterile apartment with a boyfriend who is more patient than she deserves. Her sister, who has the maturity and mental capacity of about a 10-year-old, can't keep a job and lives on welfare. She spends her days riding public buses in the unnamed city where their family was raised.
The women's father has been Beth's primary lifeline, but when he dies, Rachel reluctantly returns to town for what she thinks will be a short visit. Instead, she finds herself saddled with the unwanted responsibility of helping Beth adjust to life on her own.
"I'm trapped," she complains to her brother as he prepares to bail out and return to his family. "Beth's just a dead weight."
Beth doesn't think much of Rachel, either, regarding her as an insensitive intruder in her simple but happy life. "I'm not stupid," she reminds Rachel after a particularly patronizing lecture. "I'm just different."
It would have been easy to make Riding the Bus a typical warm and fuzzy tear-jerker, which the networks dearly love to do. But that didn't happen here - maybe because O'Donnell is an executive producer, or because its director is Oscar winner Angelica Huston, or maybe just because Rachel Simon's book doesn't sugarcoat the sisters or their relationship.
O'Donnell's Beth is assertive, loud, and uninhibited - and sometimes difficult to understand. Whether she's riding a bus in her favorite Tweety Bird T-shirt, arguing with her sister, or dancing awkwardly on a beach with her painfully shy boyfriend, Jesse (Richard T. Jones, Judging Amy), she'll do whatever she feels like and blurt out whatever she's thinking.
But Beth is also stubborn, moody, irritating, and at times, pretty unlikable.
O'Donnell shows some acting chops that haven't been on display since, well, forever - unless you'd charitably like to count her role as a baseball player in A League of Their Own back in 1992.
As Rachel, MacDowell turns in a quiet and controlled performance, convincingly transforming from a cold, self-centered woman into someone with a compassion that surprises even herself.
Interviewed on the film's set, in Hamilton, Ont., O'Donnell explained what led to the real-life Beth's passion for riding buses.
"You have to understand that before she started riding the buses, she lived in a group home," she said. "She didn't see anyone except other mentally challenged people. One day she decided just to go out and get on the bus and see what would happen. And she found a whole new world out there, a whole life, a whole family."
"When she began her bus journey, she started to thrive her spirit was lifted."
Curious about her sister's life, Rachel begins riding the buses with Beth, and marvels at how important her sister has become to the drivers and many of the passengers, how they've really become part of her family and she a part of theirs.
OK, so the whole thing is a little formulaic, in typical Hallmark fashion. But still, in the end we do manage to learn something, right along with Rachel - that when it comes to dealing with life and with each other, we're all pretty much riders on the same bus.
Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade