Television director Michael Engler helms The Chaperone, a coming-of-age story about two very different women traveling together to New York City from Kansas. Mostly set in 1922, Prohibition, suppressive gender dynamics and xenophobia all rear their ugly heads, revealing an older-looking but relevant America; If you thought our past were full of smiles and ragtime, this shows otherwise.

Haley Lu Richardson (Split) plays a teenage version of screen star Louise Brooks, New York-bound for dancing reasons. Richardson's youthful exuberance and natural talent makes her fascinating to watch and she steals entire scenes. Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) as Norma Carlisle, meanwhile, is Louise's chaperone, and a counter to her personality. McGovern finds her character's greatest power either via cooly expressing her values to the ignorant, or in discovering her New York past. The supporting cast are pleasant enough with eyes on Lord of the Rings star Miranda Otto as Louise's dance instructor, and Singles lead Campbell Scott as Norma's secretive husband in particular. Unfortunately, accomplished thespian Blythe Danner couldn't be bothered to do anything other than arrive and collect her check.

Julian Fellowes, also of Downton Abbey, pens a screenplay average in narrative structure, but clever in the quiet conversations, and the film's biggest blunders are in allowing well-written dialogue to be ruined by a lack of direction. One wishes Engler were more active in helping his actors make choices in both body language and pitch.

Despite that, the production design is quite convincing. Nothing looks fake, but rather aged, as if preserved in time for this exact production. Camera work and lighting are fluid as well; bright, yet accommodating to the environment. Other elements are wonkier, such as choppy editing that robs lead actors of emotional moments landing with gravitas or poor vocal dubbing that makes one wonder when the Shaolin Monks might fly into the air, swords in hand.

As one can guess, The Chaperone would have made a far better special on PBS than a theatrical release. Its relatively small viewership could have found a charming enough program for a Sunday evening view, favorite vice in hand.

+Wonderful leading ladies; vibrant settings

-Lazy post-production;, TV movie attitude

The Chaperone 
Directed by Engler
With Richardson, McGovern, Carlisle and Danner
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 93 min.