Anthony Ficco and Kate Amundsen in Donna: Stronger Than Pretty (Photo: Gravitas Ventures)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jaret Martino
STARS Kate Amundsen, Anthony Ficco

A serious subject receives the personal treatment in Donna: Stronger Than Pretty, an indie effort that focuses on a true story involving domestic violence.

Jaret Martino not only directed and co-wrote the movie, he also lived through the events depicted therein. His mother, DonnaMarie Martino, is the inspiration for the film, and she helped shape the screenplay alongside her son Jaret and co-scripter Pat Branch. The result is an effective film that marches in step with similarly minded movies from the past year (most notably The Invisible Man, seemingly miles removed from this picture except that they both wade deep into domestic abuse issues).

Kate Amundsen delivers a strong performance as Donna, who meets Nick (Anthony Ficco) one night while hanging out at a bar with her girlfriends. Nick has that bad-boy vibe going on, which in itself isn’t a crime, and Donna is instantly attracted to his humor and his confidence. He seems to genuinely love her as well and dotes on her young son from a previous relationship. They soon get married and have two more children, but it’s here when matters start taking a turn for the tragic.

Nick never exactly tamed his demons from the past, but he did manage to somewhat compartmentalize them as he embarked on his new married life. But it’s not long before he’s back to drinking too much, chasing other women, and even selling cocaine (while enjoying the occasional snort himself). And if Donna complains about any of his abhorrent behavior, he has no qualms about beating her.

Malt Shop DONNA
Kate Amundsen and Anthony Ficco

A lesser film would make Nick a one-dimensional villain who spends the remainder of the picture yelling and punching. To its credit, Donna illustrates the more insidious nature of these types of violent men by repeatedly showing how he continues to coddle, cuddle, and cajole her. He talks to her as if they’re high school sweethearts without a care in the world, and we’re never sure at any given moment whether her lips will be met with a smooch or a smack.

The picture does suffer from a few awkwardly executed segments. There’s one sequence — the one that gives the film its extended title — that rings so true in its specificity that I have to believe it actually happened. Yet lifting scenes verbatim from real life can be a tricky business, and the staging falters even if the message shines through.

Overall, Donna: Stronger Than Pretty earns its keep by not only looking at domestic violence but, perhaps more importantly, showing how its heroine managed to eventually escape the cycle of abuse and find her own place in the world. DonnaMarie Martino recently passed away, but, as an added bonus, the movie ends with her being interviewed. It’s her story, and it’s gratifying to see her have the last word.

(Donna: Stronger Than Pretty is now available on DVD and such streaming platforms as Amazon Prime, Apple, and iTunes.)

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