Struggle to be family

  • January 11, 2008

{mosimage}One of the most useless and common complaints about the movies is that they’re not like real life. It’s like complaining that the water is wet, or exercise makes you tired.

Movies aren’t real, but they shouldn’t be false.

Most of the dreck force fed into the category of “family entertainment” is quite rightly condemned as direct-to-DVD pap — rejected by those who love movies enough to venture out of their homes and pay $13 to see them. Movie-goers reject this so-called entertainment because it is so uniformly and resolutely false. Family entertainment as a category of faux film presents black and white alternatives between good  and evil, and celebrates family life as a clear, obvious ideal. Our real choices are never so easy — sometimes between good and less good or between good now and good later. Real families embody many and conflicting ideals. Very few of us experience family as a cause in need of propaganda to prop it up, and we should be suspicious of those who do.

What to do then with Martian Child, a film not geared to the ideologically driven, direct-to-DVD family entertainment market? This is a real movie by real filmmakers interested in telling a story. The story is about a family and the struggle to be a family in the shadow of all those frightening ideals. The filmmakers struggle against the weight of clichés about triumph and resolution, courage, hope and happy endings.

Alas, they struggle in vain.

The film is based on a short story, which was based on the real life experience of science fiction writer David Gerrold. As a widower, Gerrold adopted an eight-year-old boy who had barely survived a long series of group homes and foster parents. The boy, Dennis, wraps himself completely in a myth that he is from Mars. Saying he is from Mars allows Dennis to keep the surrounding humans, particularly adults who drift in and out of his life, at a safe emotional distance.

John Cusack plays the widowed gentleman writer who has chosen this inscrutable problem child to replace the emptiness at the heart of his big, beautiful home. He is believable, straightforward, ordinary and human — just what we expect from Cusack.

It is hard to watch Martian Child without being constantly aware of the virtuoso show of Cusack’s talent for being ordinary. Seven-year-old Bobby Coleman as Dennis has to carry much of the film on his delicate shoulders, and does it very well. But the two excellent characters have nowhere to go in a story which cannot offer an alternative to clichés we’ve come to dread. Yes, the martian child learns to be human, and the eternal boy who chooses to be a father grows into manhood because of the boy. There are tears and embraces and then happy sounding music as the credits roll.

There are worse crimes than happy endings. Families are sometimes happy. The falseness lies not in the happiness but in the ending, because families do not end. Nothing is ever resolved, really.

Martian Child did play in theatres last fall to lukewarm reviews. The DVD is out on Jan. 29 and there could be worse ways to kill an evening with the family gathered around the television. Minor roles are filled by such outstanding actors as Angelica Huston, Amanda Peet and Richard Schiff. The DVD filler material includes the usual deleted scenes, director’s commentary, a dreadful mini-documentary about the life of a child actor and a surprisingly interesting interview with the real Martian Child and his father. Gerrold makes a decent appeal for people to step forward and take on the challenge of adopting children.

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