The bizarre world of beauty pageants is thoroughly explored in Beautiful, Sally Field's directorial debut. Mona (Minnie Driver) has been obsessed since childhood with becoming a pageant-winner, despite the lack of support from her unloving mother (Linda Hart). Seriously damaged, utterly self-involved, Mona just barrels ahead, enlisting the inexhaustible aid of best friend Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), who pretends to be the mother of Mona's illegitimate child Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg)-parenting being an absolute no-no in the beauty-sweepstakes universe.

This is a two-ton concept involving characters' lack of self-worth and loving family and, of course, eventual healing, that reads like a particularly grueling episode of 'Oprah.' Indeed, the words of La Winfrey are here cited as the ultimate guru-cant (and, doubtless, a full 'Oprah' will be devoted to the film). It's treacly, plastic and shamelessly obvious, and yet, on a low-rent level, it somehow works. This is largely due to Driver, who makes Mona a rather memorable anti-heroine, along the lines of Katharine Hepburn's Alice Adams, Bette Davis' Jezebel or Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. She doesn't stint on the character's meannesses or insane ambition, and is a refreshing antidote to the bland female presences which mark most current American movies. (Indeed, most of the goody-goody stuff is shoveled onto Ruby, and Adams' husky-voiced pathos renders her even more tiresomely saintly.) Driver's Mona is the kind of cluelessly driving, mediocre, yet unendingly energetic girl who wills herself into beauty and accomplishment, and, as such, is an archetype of a particular kind of American woman. (You hardly question the lack of any men in her life.) Despite the ripened corn inherent in the material, Driver's total commitment and passion batter you into submission and you may even blink back a tiny tear at the heartwarmingly fervent close (although Field lingers way too long over it).

Eisenberg is another asset: This solemn-faced child is an awesomely self-possessed wonder, carrying whole sequences single-handedly and often displaying more poised maturity than anyone before the camera. For the most part, the direction is assured and savvy, but nothing can save certain lame episodes like Ruby's suddenly being thrown into jail (talk about pasted-on melodrama!), Mona's aiding a pregnant woman in a supermarket, or her sudden pageant transformation into a rather cheesy song-and-dance diva to give even Mariah Carey pause. One could also do without John Frizzell's god-awful music (the piano tinkle of pathos, the flute of fervidness) and some overplayed prison inmates, policewomen and guards. The pageant scenes are bitchy fun, sparked by Bridgette L. Wilson (Miss Texas; talent: ventriloquism) and Leslie Stefanson as Mona's lifelong rival turned vicious TV newswoman. Kathleen Turner is properly-though probably unintentionally-monstrous as a contestant trainer.

--David Noh