The sole directorial effort by movie producer Jerome Hellman, whose small but impressive list of productions includes Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978), this pedestrian drama explores the topic of a teenager dying from cancer and the emotional impact her disease has on family members and physicians. Setting aside that there’s absolutely no reason why this should have been a theatrical feature, seeing as how TV movies of the same vintage handled this sort of material quite well, the movie is absurdly overlong at 118 minutes, suggesting that Hellman couldn’t bear to leave unused a single frame that he had shot. Yet the problems with the movie run even deeper than issues of editing: Loring Mandel’s script is so unfocused that for most of the picture’s running time, it’s hard to tell whether the young patient or her principal doctor is the main character. The movie is redeemed by sensitive performances and thoughtful dialogue, and of course the subject matter has innate grit. Nonetheless, Promises is a Dark is a slog when it should have been a quick and steady descent into the profound terrain of existentialism.
The movie’s nominal star is Marsha Mason, quite good as physician Alexandra Kendall. While treating high school student Elizabeth “Buffy” Koenig (Kathleen Beller) for a broken leg, Dr. Kendall determines the bone shouldn’t have broken under the given circumstances. Tests conducted with radiologist Dr. Jim Sandman (Michael Brandon) reveal cancer. This understandably rocks Buffy’s emotional world and that of her parents, strong mother Fran (Susan Clark) and weak father Bud (Ned Beatty). What ensues is an ordinary melodrama during which Dr. Kendall wrestles with how much to tell Buffy about the grim prognosis, and during which all parties experience levels of denial about the inevitable conclusion of Buffy’s sad saga.
Doe-eyed starlet Beller gives a fairly muscular performance, though of course playing a character with a disease is every actor’s dream, and supporting actors Beatty, Brandon, Clark, and Donald Moffat make strong contributions in underwritten roles. Mason believably alternates between brittle and vulnerable. Alas, there’s only so much the performers can do in the absence of clear-headed direction. Hellman’s storytelling is so tentative that during a scene of Buffy and her boyfriend discussing the transmutation of the soul after death, the soft-rock bummer “Dust in the Wind” plays on the soundtrack. Subtle! It’s impossible to genuinely dislike a well-meaning fumble like Promises in the Dark. At the same time, however, it’s tough to get excited about a story that doesn't truly find its way until the last scene.
Promises in the Dark: FUNKY