AMERICA. 9 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime.

ROSIE O'DONNELL wears her heart on her sleeve.

Maybe you like that about her. Maybe you don't.

Hard to argue, though, that her heart's in the wrong place when she's using her clout in the name of children, as she does Saturday in "America," a Lifetime movie about a 17-year-old who's about to age out of the foster-care system.

O'Donnell, who co-wrote the script with Joyce Eliason ("Riding the Bus With My Sister") from a novel by E.R. Frank, stars as Dr. Maureen Brennan, a therapist who works with teens like America Vega (Philip Johnson) in a residential treatment facility.

Ruby Dee plays a woman who'd worked for one of America's foster families, which ceded his care to her.

A generation may have grown up without after-school specials, yet they (and we) still know them when we see them: preachy productions in which the message sometimes overwhelms the medium.

"America," which begins and ends with a heavy-handed voiceover by O'Donnell, begs to be compared to those issues-oriented morality plays.

But those of us old enough to remember them should also be old enough to acknowledge that they weren't all bad.

In a period where TV treated children like smart-mouthed puppets, the specials shone a light on those with divorced parents, with substance-abuse problems, with disabilities.

Lifetime, long the channel viewers have turned to when they wanted to escape into stories of women who've unwittingly married Very Bad Men, isn't afraid of confronting issues now and then, particularly if people like O'Donnell and Dee are involved.

Though O'Donnell's not exactly at her wisecracking best as Brennan, a doggedly earnest type who spends most of the movie trying to draw her patient out of his shell, Dee is loveliness itself as the one person in America's life who hasn't hurt him.

And Raquel Castro ("Jersey Girl") turns in a nice performance as Liza, a patient who's a little further along in her recovery and has eyes for America.

But it's Johnson who's truly memorable.

A 17-year-old whom O'Donnell's said to have discovered eating with his family in a Detroit restaurant just days before shooting began, he's terrific in a role that's trickier than it looks.

Forced to remain expressionless - occasionally even mute - for entire scenes, he does most of his talking with his eyes.

(A younger brother, Steven, plays America as a 10-year-old.)

From "Oliver Twist" to "Annie," we tend to give our hearts to cuddly urchins, not sullen teens, in movies and in real life.

America, a muscular kid who looks years older than his timid roommate, Fish (Bubba Welier), is a boy who likes to play with lighters and who appears to be carrying some dark secrets.

In other words, he's just the kind of foster child prospective parents might shy away from, for fear of biting off more than they could chew.

"I'd much rather talk to you than read about you," Brennan tells America as she tries to discover what was behind a suicide attempt three months earlier, and he refers her to his file.

But you know it's only a matter of time before he'll be reading "Catcher in the Rye," opening up to strangers, coming to terms with his past.

Despite that obligatory scene of catharsis, "America" doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

Which may be why we need people like O'Donnell to keep asking questions. *

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