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''The Fantasia Barrino Story''

By RD Heldenfels Published: August 18, 2006

In July, I saw  couple of clips from the Lifetime movie ''The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale,'' which premieres Saturday night at 9 on Lifetime, with prime-time replays on Sunday and Monday. Based on those clips -- including a wrenching scene of Fantasia, playing herself, in church -- I thought she had the goods to be a real actress. Since then, I have seen the entire movie. I still think she has the goods, just not as many as I thought before, and the movie itself is not as good as I hoped.

Fantasia is still very good in that church scene, and in the latter parts of the movie, where she seems more comfortable as herself. Earlier scenes, when she had to re-enact a number of painful moments from her life, are less surehanded. There is also the problem that she's not the same person physically that she was in those days, or even during ''American Idol.'' She has a healthy heft now, where -- as her print memoir says -- she was thinner and frailer in the past. There's even a scene where her father, played by Kadeem Hardison, comments on her looking weak during her pregnancy, while the Fantasia onscreen doesn't remotely look that way.

The movie has also generated some controversy over an early scene where it appears the ''Idol'' producers are giving her the option of leaving the show (in other words, gently urging her to leave), because of audience hostility toward her being a young, single mother. The show's producers have denied having any such conversation. In her book, Fantasia does recall the producers telling her, ''The choice is up to you.'' She wrote that she decided to ''put it in God's hands.'' The movie, though it repeatedly acknowledges Fantasia's faith, is less direct about her faith getting her through that crisis -- making it more of a matter of her drawing on the strength and wisdom she gained in her hard life.

But that scene is a fairly small part of the movie. In fact, her ''American Idol'' experience makes up only about a third of the production as a whole, most of that near the end and somewhat sketchily told. Instead, it focuses on the road Fantasia took to ''Idol,'' a slow and arduous and, in this telling, often undramatic one.

There are things director Debbie Allen did that I like a great deal. In no way does she glam up people, preferring a grubbiness that fits with lower-income people who are often just getting by. She's also good at showing how people interact, in a card-playing scene, for instance, or in a church, although sometimes she gets too fancy -- with a camera spinning dizzily around a table, for one thing. The casting is also good in many cases, including Loretta Devine as Fantasia's grandmother, and Viola Davis as her mother, although I felt Davis was somewhat underused.

Still, the movie still feels slow, in large measure because it spends so little time on ''Idol.'' After all, that's the accomplishment viewers see her life heading toward. We see the lessons Fantasia learns on her way to the show, but we don't really see how those lessons fit with her progress through the show itself, the backstage maneuvers implied in that scene with the producers. There's considerably more of that in her book, but the book doesn't have to pay ''Idol'' for clips and tie up music rights. To do that backstage story would also have required more cooperation from the makers of ''Idol,'' and they have jealously guarded what goes on at the program.

I'm getting a little off track, though, because I'm talking too much about the movie I think they should have made, instead of focusing on the one they did. But I wanted this movie to be better than it was. I wanted Fantasia to bring the same strength and charm to the movie overall that she does to some scenes. I wanted the story to be richer. I didn't want to sit and feel restless, watching the seconds tick by on the DVD timer.

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