Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Feb 22, 2021
1 min read

When Donna and Nick got married, they pledged to be together forever, for richer or poorer, for better or worse. Except it gets worse pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, so does their movie. And unlike Donna, audiences are unlikely to stick around, hoping it’s going to get better again.

Donna: Stronger Than Pretty is a portrait of one battered spouse, and a salute to struggling wives and single mothers everywhere. But it’s more earnest than effective, and its ambitions are always miles ahead of its art. It gets points for heart, but not much else.

Set on Long Island, and spread over several decades, it stars Kate Amundsen as its title character, a quiet, twenty-something single mother who seems to lack self-confidence. She certainly lacks a good b.s. detector.

Anybody else would see Anthony Ficco’s Nick as the sleazy operator he is, a wannabe who struts into sad ‘70s bars like he’s starring in Saturday Night Fever. But the desperate Donna just sees someone who tells her she’s beautiful. And soon they’re speeding along, from a dance to a date to an elopement.

It’s all a blur. So much of a blur that Donna doesn’t notice that Nick’s stealing sips from a flask during an afternoon at the playground, or realize he’s selling drugs with his buddies at night. And by the time she starts asking questions, and he starts answering with his fists, she’s got three kids and sees no way out.

The movie, it goes out of its way to tell us, is based on real life (we get to meet its inspiration after the final fadeout). And with its various stops in jail, in courtrooms, and in food pantries, it’s not an uncommon story.

It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to make it an exceptional one, though, and that’s where writer and director Jaret Martino fails. Although Amundsen is an appealing performer, there’s nothing very memorable about Donna as a character. The loutish Nick is even more, hey-how-YOU-doin’ generic.

The photography is pretty, especially when we move outside for some sunny seascapes. But there’s no sense of period, or place. If it weren’t for the occasional title cards, we’d never even know what year we were in.

Of course it doesn’t help, either, that the dialogue is a long string of clichés, like “The ends justify the means” and “Well, it’s easy to see where your daughter gets her looks!” Or the one-two punch of “What are you running from, Nick?” and his anguished response, “I’m running from me!”

Add in a poor sound mix, a supporting cast that seems to be cosplaying Working Girl, and two leads who barely age a day over more than 20 years, and it’s clear soon that the movie is pretty much past saving. And yet it still has half of its nearly two hours to go.

But as Donna herself could tell you, sometimes it takes a long time to undo one quick bad decision.

2.5 stars (out of 5)