Brimming over with the milk of human kindness, THE SUMMER OF BEN TYLER is a plea for tolerance stamped with the Hallmark Hall of Fame seal of pristine earnestness. The issues are clearly stated; the dramatic conflicts are tidily drawn; the end result is gratifying but lacking in urgency.
During WWII, in the sleepy Southern town of Maitland Mills, lawyer Temple Rayburn (James Woods) has a promising practice, an adoring wife, Celia (Elizabeth McGovern), and a precocious daughter, Nell (Julia McIlvaine). Not comprehending the quid pro quo nature of politics, Temple agrees to run for
public office under the sponsorship of town pillar Spencer Maitland (Len Cariou). When the Rayburn family's African-American maid, Rosetta (Novella Nelson), is dying, she extracts a promise from the Rayburns to take care of her mildly retarded son, Ben (Charles Mattocks).
The Rayburn family angers provincial neighbors by allowing Ben to live with them under the same roof. Societal disapproval of such liberal charity vitiates Temple's political campaign. Spencer takes it upon himself to build separate living quarters for Ben. At this time, two tragedies occur:
first, Spencer Maitland's sniveling, alcoholic son, Junius (Kevin Isola), accidentally kills a woman in a hit-and-run (Temple is hired to defend him); then, Ben is falsely accused of setting a fire actually started by a guilt-stricken but silent Nell. Through official pressure by Spencer, Ben is
drafted, despite his unsuitability for military service.
When a witness to the car accident surfaces, Temple can no longer ignore Junius's obvious guilt. Spencer removes upright Temple from the case and cancels his backing of Temple's political career. Booted out of the army, Ben returns to his adoptive white family. Nell tearfully confesses to setting
the fire and exonerates Ben. Taking a cue from Ben's selflessness, the Rayburns feel empowered. They staunchly insist that the town accept their liberal attitudes about Ben. Temple adheres to his principles in matters of justice, regardless of the cost to his career.
THE SUMMER OF BEN TYLER seems determined to register as a small-scale TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). But despite the authentic Southern atmosphere it achieves, it can't match the classic film's dramatic momentum about civil rights conflicts or penetrating insight into childhood psychology. On its
own superficial terms, this teary-eyed melodrama whips up outrage about bigotry and heart-on-its-sleeve sympathy for the mentally challenged. The screenplay lags in its predictable portrayal of intolerance, but picks up speed when it examines Temple's crisis of honor about bucking the town's white
establishment. So, despite a certain staleness around the edges, sober acting and sensitive direction push the drama forward. Best of all, THE SUMMER OF BEN TYLER succeeds in conveying the genuine affection which the Rayburn family feels for outcast Ben. That palpable compassion suffuses this
movie in a warm glow. (Violence, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1996
- Rating: PG
- Review: Brimming over with the milk of human kindness, THE SUMMER OF BEN TYLER is a plea for tolerance stamped with the Hallmark Hall of Fame seal of pristine earnestness. The issues are clearly stated; the dramatic conflicts are tidily drawn; the end result is gr… (more)