The husband, Ray Tisdale (Jeff Fahey), gets up from the bed early in the morning to sneak out to go fishing at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, where he and his family live. A small town where everybody knows each other.
He finds a single pink rose on the chair next to his side of the bed that he puts on his pillow, and then he leaves the room with his faithful dog. His wife, Vivian (Jane Seymour), still asleep for a few more seconds, turns over to his side of the bed, places her hand on what turns out to be a pillow, opens her eyes, sees the pink rose, and smiles.
He walks the deck of the house to the lake, passing by the open door of his grown daughter Lily’s (Madeline Zima) room. He sees her meditating and chanting in Hindi, and says, “Hey, Buddha.” She opens her eyes and smiles at him. He tells her he loves her, and she replies in kind.
This isn’t good.
He’s at the lake, fishing, with his dog watching. He finally catches a big one, and triumphantly lights a faulty grill. He throws something for his dog to fetch, which intrigues it enough to walk away and go after it. Then he lights a cigarette, and we only hear the explosion from inside Lily’s classroom, where she’s an art teacher.
I knew it! A single pink rose framed so closely, and telling your daughter you love her with such a dramatic look on your face doesn’t happen if it’s going to be another humdrum day. The explosion was an accident, as we see, and there begins the utter predictability of Lake Effects, whose only benefit is showing off a part of Virginia that few ever get to see, that of Smith Mountain Lake. It’s an actual lake, and Lake Effects was all filmed there.
So now it’s time to meet the distant member of the family. She’s Sara (Scottie Thompson), a 36-hours-in-a-24-hour-day L.A. lawyer, who needs can after can of sugar-free Red Bull to keep her going while she thinks she loves a blowhard fellow lawyer (Casper Van Dien), and contends with suddenly being thrust into negotiations with a textile company at the behest of Winchester (Ron Canada), her boss, who picks her because she has the best rapport with that company. Ron Canada provides one of the few pleasures of this TV movie because I remember him best as Under Secretary of State Theodore Barrow on The West Wing, a consistently reliable face in the Situation Room. He has this deep, low rumble of a voice that projects authority, as well as a certain softness within the seriousness. It’s good to see that his career has never wavered.
Sara escaped from what she saw as the confinement of her small town, wanting to do something bigger. So naturally, being called back home, she’s been away so long that she’s adopted so many L.A. personality traits that she sees her old town as one full of hicks, and too slow. Far too slow. She just wants to stay long enough for the funeral and leave. Lily can handle everything anyway.
Well, you can sense what’s going to happen next. Sara stays for longer, and she’s inevitably changed, especially when she finally sees the papers that have her mother worried, from Rapture Real Estate, which is calling in its loans all over the lake. If the loans aren’t paid, the company forecloses.
This would all be worrisome, if I actually felt worried for these characters. Director Michael McKay does not know subtlety, going big and broad on every performance. The actors merely follow, which is understandable because it was a quick job that produced a paycheck, and I’m glad to see that Madeline Zima, Jane Seymour, Richard Moll, and Ben Savage are still being paid, but oh, Richard Moll and Ben Savage. Poor Richard Moll and Ben Savage. These are the men who were once Bull, the bailiff, on Night Court, and Cory Matthews on Boy Meets World, respectively. Now they’re cast as two small-town nuts in a bag of small-town nuts searching for the legendary Smithy, who is said to be living in Smith Mountain Lake. This attracts the attention of a TV host (Sean Patrick Flanery) who makes shows about mysterious creatures. Watch him interviewing Savage, and then shake your head sadly. That’s what I did. Moll pops off a few lines that are only funny because of his always-appreciated inflection.
But that’s not only the worst of it. With her role as the grieving widow, Seymour tries so hard to be in a Tennessee Williams play that isn’t there, like she’s trying to audition for the role of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Only Zima, as the artist daughter who wants more out of her life, but isn’t sure how she can get more when she feels obligated to take care of her mother, gets any mileage out of her performance. She’s the only bright ray of light in this increasingly impossible story, an actor like Alan Alda whose whole face is involved when she smiles. Her eyes, too.
What’s not understood by the writers, of which director Michael McKay was one, is that when you’re in a small town, you have to feel it on your own, see what interests you. You can show whatever you want, but give the audience a chance on their own to get into it, instead of blasting them with an overemotional score, cinematography that starts off nice but becomes increasingly plain, and some small-town people that are way too much. Even with Lake Effects having being aired on Hallmark Channel, where you know you can find more movies like this, it’s still possible to make a good movie set in a small town. But Madeline Zima alone isn’t enough to erase the embarrassment of this one. It’s an hour and 40 minutes, but it’s the kind of TV movie where you look up at your DVD player, find out that you’re only 45 minutes in, and access your mental Rolodex to find out who you might have recently pissed off. Karma loves this movie.
The DVD, from Anchor Bay Entertainment, has a 23-minute featurette about the making of Lake Effects, including just the right mix of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to make this no different from any other making-of featurette. Everyone loves having worked in Smith Mountain Lake, everyone loves their roles, and the crew loved this project too. Everyone’s in love! It’s not such a bad thing, of course, if there’s variety, really getting into the production, maybe to see what a typical day was like, tying in everything, including the obvious cooperation of the town. But if you’ve seen any other making-of featurette that’s an out-and-out lovefest, you’ve seen this one.
There’s also 11 deleted scenes, totaling 9 minutes and 34 seconds. If you really, truly need more Lake Effects, here it is.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Lake Effects aired on Hallmark Channel and therefore there’s not much to expect, What does matter is that it shouldn’t be too much to ask for a little entertainment, feeling like your time was well spent. The setting alone promises a good story. Lake Effects never delivers.