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Mariah Carey surprisingly effective in "Tennessee"

Singer Mariah Carey performs during ABC Good Morning America Summer Concert Series at Times Square in New York, April 25, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It’s slightly unfair to describe “Tennessee,” which had its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, as the new Mariah Carey movie, but that’s the way most people will talk about it.

Carey is not the main character in this story of two brothers trying to make peace with their past, but her presence will give this road picture a whole other level of visibility. This is not necessarily a good thing because of Carey’s notorious 2001 bomb “Glitter.”

So the first surprise of “Tennessee” is that Carey gives an understated and very effective performance. Because her musical career is soaring higher than ever, the timing could be right to win an audience for this modest rural drama.

The picture has something else going for it: a religious undercurrent that could resonate in the heartland. Carter (Adam Rothenberg) and younger brother Ellis (Ethan Peck) fled an abusive father years ago and are living in New Mexico. But when Ellis is diagnosed with leukemia, they decide to travel back to Tennessee to see whether their father might be a match for the bone marrow transplant that Ellis needs. Along the way, they encounter Carey’s Krystal, an aspiring singer who also is a victim of domestic abuse. The journey does not play out predictably because Ellis has a secret plan that might lead to redemption for the other characters.

The biggest problem with the movie is believing in Ellis’ preternatural wisdom. He’s a Christlike figure, and you either buy into his saintliness or you don’t. But even nonbelievers might find themselves moved by the film’s final scenes. This is partly a tribute to the performers.

Rothenberg, who’s known mainly for his stage work (he played Stanley Kowalski to Patricia Clarkson’s Blanche in a Kennedy Center revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire”), has a strong masculine presence. Peck, the grandson of Gregory Peck, exudes innocence and decency.

Director Aaron Woodley demonstrates visual talent, but the pacing is off, and the movie meanders until it reaches its unexpectedly powerful conclusion.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter