JULIA Roberts was once America’s Sweetheart who was doing one hit after another like “Pretty Woman”, “Notting Hill”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Erin Brokovich” for which she won Oscar best actress. She married cameraman Danny Moder in 2002 and they now have three teenage kids.
She turns 53 years old on October 28 and has appeared in her first TV series in “Homecoming” on Prime Video, consisting of 10 episodes running half an hour each. She remains lovely and her screen presence is still quite intact, with the big wide smile she’s known for continuing to project fantastic star wattage. She plays Heidi Bergman, a waitress in a small seaside diner who lives with her mom (Sissy Spacek).
A man from the Department of Defense, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), pays her a visit and asks her about her former job as a counselor at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a facility in Florida that aims to help veteran soldiers to transition to civilian life. But Heidi claims she doesn’t remember anything about her work in Homecoming or any of the people she met while she was there.
The story is not told chronologically. In flashbacks, we see Heidi interviewing one of the soldiers, Walter Cruz (Stephan James, the young black actor who made an impression in the Oscar-nominated “If Beale Street Could Talk”), who is eager to rejoin civilian life and becomes quite close to her. Her immediate boss is Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), an executive in the Geist Company that runs Homecoming.
Judging from the unsettling exchange between Heidi and Colin, you’d soon suspect that Homecoming is a nefarious enterprise involved in a covert government operation. Heidi’s memory of Homecoming seems to have been erased and she can’t even recall why she left it. She investigates on her own and eventually realizes that something went wrong while she was there.
One soldier, Joseph Shrier (Jeremy Allen White), becomes paranoid and suspects that they’re not even in Florida. The soldiers are supposed to take regular medications and Shrier has not been taking his dose. Meantime, the mother of Walter, Gloria (Marianne Jean Baptiste), is also suspicious and insists on seeing her son to urge him to return home.
Heidi herself realizes that the medicine Walter is made to take is erasing his memory, so she makes an important decision her own. She takes the medicine herself, thereby erasing her own memories. How Heidi regains her memory is highlighted in the show’s climax, along with her confrontation with the shady Colin. It has dawned on her that Colin has misled her about the real purpose of the Homecoming facility.
The show has a bittersweet ending. It is obvious in the interaction between Heidi and Walter that they are falling in love with each other, but it is never articulated. They even talked about their plans in life and Walter says he wants to go back to a certain place in California called Fish Camp, which he visited when he had a memorable road trip as a teenager.
Heidi then also goes on a road trip after dealing with Colin and eventually gets to Fish Camp. While she was in the diner there, Walter, who now lives there on a cottage all his own, comes in. He sees her sitting on a table and approaches her, striking a conversation.
It’s a very moving ending as he doesn’t remember her at all. Heidi can make him do so, with the help of a road map he gave her when they were both still in the Homecoming facility, but will she do it?
“Homecoming” is a splendid debut on the small screen for Julia Roberts as it has a haunting, melancholic quality and also comes as a gripping mystery that is not easy to let go. James as Walter is alternately playful and hilarious in dealing with Julia and he wins not just her but also the viewer’s sympathy. Bobby Cannavale is very effective as the insufferable Colin who keeps on barking orders on Heidi’s cellphone.
Director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”) has come up with a well-crafted show. Technical credits are first rate, particularly the cinematography with its impressive tracking top shots. The framing will initially puzzle you as the screen is very narrow, but it will amazingly expand once Heidi regains her memory.
Giving terrific support are Marianne Jean Baptiste as Walter’s feisty mom who won’t believe that Homecoming is really trying to rehabilitate her son, Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s supportive mom, Shea Whigham as the persistent investigator and Dermot Mulroney as Heidi’s ex-boyfriend.