The Prodigal Returns
To put things simply "Relative Stranger" is basically a play on the prodigal son story as one son returns home after years of being away and never in contact and has to deal with the bitterness of those who have missed him whilst his mother welcomes him with open arms. It means that "Relative Stranger" is a very predictable movie as we watch Walter return home and deal with an angry brother, wife and children who don't understand why he left 6 years earlier and it doesn't take a genius to know that come the end of the movie there will be reconciliation because we are talking TV movie here. But whilst predictable it does a good job of an unoriginal story, managing to flesh out what could have been a very weak story and with a reasonable cast it certainly feels more professional than many TV movies.
Walter Clemons (Eriq La Salle - Biker Boyz) was a football star, he made it to the big time till one day he damaged his knee and was forced out of the game. Now 6 years later he is struggling to make ends meet as a cabbie and constantly deals with being a former alcoholic which is tested when he learns his father has died and he has been named in the will. Reluctantly returning home for the first time in 6 years he knows there will be a lot of hurt as he walked out not only on his mother and brother James (Michael Beach) but also his wife Charlotte (Michael Michele - How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and their kids believing his family would be better off without a failure.
In a way "Relative Stranger" splits me because from a movie reviewer's point of view it is really just an average movie which works through the prodigal son style storyline. As such we have the emotional return as Walter humbly sees his mother Pearl and then all the bitterness as his brother James is angry to see him back in their lives. And in a typical way we have the issues with his wife Charlotte and children who had to deal with the pain of him leaving and not coming back once and don't want to go through it again. There is an added twist to this routine drama as we have Charlotte and James being close but it does walk an often used path as slowly Walter reconciles with his children but could blow it again by leaving.
But the thing about "Relative Stranger" is that whilst it is predictable it gets certain things very right. When Walter has to face returning to his family and the hurt he caused the unease is very real as is the way he humbly knocks on his mothers door, knowing he has no right to be there. To expand on that the fact his mother welcomes him in is just as real as is the bitterness which James has as he resents Walter just walking back into their lives. Oh there are still some typically cheesy TV movie issues, and emotional scenes of reconciliation are over manufactured but when it gets it right it gets it bang on the money.
Now what certainly helps "Relative Stranger" is that the cast is solid and have people who get in to character. Watching Eriq La Salle as Walter going from reluctant son fearful of facing the music to someone who feels wanted is good especially as the writers give solid reasoning as to why Walter struggled with being a father. Michael Beach is just as good as his brother James and in that first confrontation the bitterness and anger he delivers is perfect. I could go on because from Cicely Tyson as their mother Pearl to Dana Davis as Walter's daughter Denise they are all playing cliche but fleshed out characters.
What this all boils down to is that "Relative Stranger" is a very predictable, heart-warming drama which basically reworks the prodigal son storyline. But because the writing is sold and so is the acting it doesn't matter that you can guess there will be reconciliation and a happy after ending because it makes you feel positive.