The line on the HBO film The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom is that it’s a wicked black comedy based closely on the facts of the case of Wanda Webb Holloway, the Channelview, TX woman who was willing to pay to have her daughter’s cheerleading competition snuffed out. Be that as it may, during a lot of the movie — which is quite brilliant — I was more frightened than amused.
If you doubt that, you haven’t seen Holly Hunter’s Emmy-winning work as Wanda. Hunter has usually always had a chirpy intensity, and one can easily imagine that intensity turning to criminal intent, as in the Coens’ classic comedy Raising Arizona. But here, Hunter understands that there’s something deeply wrong with Wanda, covered up by a reflexive southern sunniness. So when she smiles, which is often, it’s a terrible sight. At times it’s like a Joker rictus. When Wanda’s daughter Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia) is preparing to try out for a cheerleader spot, Wanda and her husband C.D. (Eddie Jones) blow $250 on promotional rulers with Shanna’s name on them, only to discover that such promos will be forbidden this year. Wanda corners the woman who made this decision and talks to her sweetly, wondering aloud why the promos were allowed last year, when Shanna’s chief competitor was trying out. That smile activates and never goes away throughout the scene. You can have all your torture porn and remakes of Asian ghost movies: Holly Hunter showing her teeth, when what she really wants to do with them is rip someone’s throat out, is the true essence of horror.
Wanda is a textbook sociopath, and yet we can see that her small-town-Texas biosphere has helped make her that way. Directed by Michael Ritchie, who also helmed 1975’s Altmanesque beauty-pageant satire Smile, the film doesn’t make the mistake of condescending to rural people’s lives. There are intelligence and morality here, and they eventually rise up to put Wanda away. (She served six months in jail and was on probation for nine years.) If there’s a message here, it’s voiced by poor crazy Marla Harper (a superb Swoosie Kurtz), the delusional wife of recovering addict and oil-rig worker Terry Harper (Beau Bridges). Terry, who has somehow become Wanda’s sounding board for her desires to do away with the offending cheerleader and her mother, is fed up with Marla’s crazy talk and says so. Marla hammers each word home: “Crazy … women … are made by … crazy … men.” So who made Wanda crazy? Maybe her daddy, maybe the very society that dangles fortune and glory in front of young girls to encourage them to be titillating.
Pristinely cast — and including brief early appearances by Andy Richter, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Schiff — TPTAOTATCMM mines some then-fresh satirical territory when all the key players, including Wanda’s ex-husband (an amusingly smarmy Gregg Henry), fall over themselves and each other to sell the movie rights to their part of the whole sordid story. The movie flirts with meta: its writer, Jane Anderson, plays herself and is heard wish-listing Holly Hunter to play Wanda; various characters talk about a competing ABC movie (which was actually made, as Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, starring Lesley Ann Warren; it came out first). By the end, Shanna hopes to play herself in the movie version, and Wanda speaks brightly of Shanna’s future in acting or modeling. Ah, here we go again. The movie predated John Waters’ Serial Mom by about a year, but this sort of thing was in the air back then — along with George H.W. Bush’s saber-rattling prior to the Gulf War, from which a grateful nation was distracted by an alleged Texas cheerleader-murdering mom.
So, yes, there’s a lot to laugh at here (I won’t soon forget Swoosie Kurtz and her hysterics over “wig fur”). But there’s a lot more that’s disquieting. At the very end, Shanna’s competition is training tirelessly after dark in the football stadium, and the society and mechanism that put her where she is and Wanda where she was — well, it’s all still there.