Alison Eastwood's directorial debut, "Rails & Ties," immediately invites the comparison to her father's "Million Dollar Baby" in that the specter of death serves as a catalyst for drama. In Ms. Eastwood's film, Megan Stark (Marcia Gay Harden) is stricken with breast cancer. The only way her husband, Tom (Kevin Bacon), knows to cope is by immersing himself in his job as a railroad engineer rolling between Los Angeles and Seattle. When a deadly collision temporarily puts Tom out of work, tension soon mounts between the couple now that he must stay at home.
Davey (13-year-old Miles Heizer, channeling Haley Joel Osment circa 1999), who was orphaned as a result of the train accident, unexpectedly comes knocking one day and Megan insists that the couple take him in, despite the fact that a social worker is plastering "missing" posters everywhere with the kid's mug on them. With the aid of a piano, a kite, and a model train set in the garage, the three slowly discover la joie de vivre en famille until Megan's condition worsens.
Aside from the fact that his company, Malpaso, bankrolled the project, Clint Eastwood's name is missing — and perhaps sorely so — from the credits. He fashioned "Million Dollar Baby" as one of those intimate, understated, B-picture character studies of yesteryear. The premise of "Rails & Ties" might initially strike some as the third act of "Million Dollar Baby" stretched into a full-length feature, since Davey's sickly mother chose suicide as her way out. One would have hoped that Ms. Eastwood had the good sense to make the film into a throwback to the women's pictures of the 1930s or '40s, such as Edmund Goulding's "Dark Victory," which also dealt with a female protagonist coming to terms with her terminal cancer. Unfortunately, here you get a Lifetime original movie with a bigger budget.
Ms. Eastwood does her best to mimic those studied camera pans and dimly lit compositions employed by her father. She also managed to land two "Mystic River" alumni — Mr. Bacon and Ms. Harden — and the latter certainly delivers. In several scenes, the actress slowly, gracefully brews an emotion to just the right intensity, without ever surrendering to the hysteria usually found in this type of melodrama. Still, "Rails & Ties" doesn't work well as a weepie since moviegoers won't care about a character simply because she is gravely ill. Micky Levy's screenplay is lacking in character development, and Davey and Tom undergo significant transformations almost at the snap of a finger. Moviegoers will still be unmoved even when the characters start cranking up the waterworks.