About 12 minutes into The Memory Keeper’s Daughter comes one of the greatest unintentionally funny moments in the history of made-for-TV movies: In 1964 Kentucky, nurse Caroline Gil (Emily Watson) has been asked by her boss Dr. David Henry (Dermot Mulroney) to deposit his newborn daughter (who has Down syndrome) at a group home he’s never visited. What she finds is a dank hovel full of drooling basket cases who could be auditioning for a remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks. The scene would be beyond ludicrous if not for Watson’s conviction—as anyone who’s seen Breaking the Waves knows, no actor is better at taking a crazy scheme like Caroline’s subsequent adoption of the baby and making it seem like a brave act of devotion.
“She’s a mongoloid, she won’t live long,” Dr. Henry callously announces after delivering his daughter, who arrives seconds after a healthy fraternal twin. (In his defense, he had a retarded sister who didn’t make it past 12 and whose death destroyed his mother.) After telling his wife (Gretchen Mol) that their daughter was born dead, he begins to balance his medical career with a parallel life as a fine-art photographer, while Caroline raises the girl with her new truck-driver husband in Pittsburgh. At this point, the film slows down and allows Mulroney to bring his innate goofiness to his portrayal of the guilt-plagued doctor. Once the focus falls more squarely on the inner lives of the characters (and Caroline begins a quest to enroll her daughter in public school), the plot mechanics suddenly seem a lot less absurd. What follows would be a pretty typical Lifetime movie if not for the quirky central performances, which give The Memory Keeper’s Daughter just enough personality to be affecting.