What Makes a Family (2001)

Brooke Shields as Janine Nielssen in What Makes a Family (2001)

Where There's No Will There's Still a Way

The write up I read prior to watching "What Makes a Family" read something like "a lesbian partner battles for custody of their child after her partner died and the Grandparents under law have more rights". Now for me that made this made for TV movie which is based upon a true story sound like it was going to be this drama about homosexuality and the rights when it comes to being parents, but in truth that really only comes in to play towards the end. Instead "What Makes a Family" plays out as is this pleasant drama about two women who fall in love, have a daughter through artificial insemination and as one falls ill they struggle to keep going. And whilst there are moments when "What Makes a Family" suffers from some typical TV corniness it is nicely acted and surprisingly compelling.

Janine Nielssen (Brooke Shields - The Bachelor) and Sandy Cataldi (Cherry Jones - Amelia) first met in a grocery store and whilst Janine had struggled with her sexuality they fall in love and become partners. They also have a child via artificial insemination with Sandy carrying their child, a daughter who they named Heather (Jordy Benattar). But shortly after giving birth Sandy is diagnosed with a degenerative illness which eventually claims her life after 5 years of fighting. Following her death Janine finds Sandy's parents turning nasty as without Sandy having written a will under law they have more rights to Heather than she does and seek to shut Janine out of Heather's life.

Cherry Jones as Sandy Cataldi in What Makes a Family (2001)

"What Makes a Family" starts with Janine trying to persuade expert lawyer Terry Harrison to present her in her battle to get Heather back at which point we discover that Janine is a lesbian. What follows on from there and basically takes up the first two thirds of the movie is how we get to this point. Now for those who came to watch "What Makes a Family" expecting something more focussed on the legal battle for a lesbian mother to have rights to her child may be disappointed because in truth that part really only comes during the final third of the movie. And it has to be said that when we do get to the legal side it does make some very good points but does not deliver the sharp court battle you might be anticipating.

What that means is for the first two thirds we get the story of Janine and Sandy, how they met, fell in love, got married, had a child and then Sandy's slow deterioration after discovering she has systemic lupus. It does occasionally get cheesy, no more so in the wedding scene, but this is a very pleasant drama nicely played out with no real agenda other than to establish that Sandy and Janine were in love and were good parents. But as I have already said it does make "What Makes a Family" very different to what I was expecting and in a way better for it because it establishes character and relationships, it's just a shame that the legal side of the movie didn't feel sharper.

Now I mentioned that occasionally "What Makes a Family" is a bit cheesy and often this comes down to some slightly poor acting but for the most it is good. Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones work so well together as Janine and Sandy delivering a believable relationship and when during the latter part of the movie it focuses on Janine's battle for custody Brooke Shields delivers the emotional drain quite brilliantly.

What this all boils down to is that "What Makes a Family" was not the movie I expected and in some ways a far better one. Instead of being the legal drama about rights what you get is this pleasant drama about being a family and it works.