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Martian Child (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 November 2007
“Martian Child” tells a simple, interesting story—but it’s perhaps just a little too simple, as it builds to a moderately improbable climax, evidently there mostly because the ending otherwise would not have been particularly dramatic. Though it’s not a particularly dramatic tale to begin with, it is one worth telling—it’s just that in recent years this kind of story has been seen mostly on the Hallmark and Lifetime cable channels: it’s about families and what they can consist of.

Popular science fiction writer David (John Cusack) is feeling pressure from his excitable agent Jeff (Oliver Platt) to finish the next in a promising series of novels—the first was a best seller, and the publisher is eager for a follow-up. David, however, is feeling somewhat at loose ends.

The movie actually opens with David telling us about his own rather lonely childhood—we see the boy David whacked in the head with a basketball, followed by laughter from the other kids. David is being interviewed on a TV show, and talks directly to the camera about his past. His beloved wife died only a few years ago, and he acutely feels her loss. He’s considering adopting a child.

His amusing sister Liz (John Cusack’s amusing sister Joan) is a somewhat overworked soccer mom warns him about the perils of parenthood. He visits a children’s home, where the director Sophie (Sophie Okonedo) cautions him: he’s taking on something that will change his life completely; if he backs out, it could seriously damage the child. But David has a nice, modern Southern California home, complete with pool and handsome dog Somewhere. He feels he can handle it. Liz is unsure about bringing another child into this world, but David point out it’s hard to argue against the logic of adopting one who’s already here.

Now, just which kid? There’s one he hasn’t actually seen; a boy spends all his days inside a big cardboard box, peering out through a slit he’s cut in the cardboard. Other kids warn David that Dennis (Bobby Coleman), the boy in the box, is a weirdo. He claims to be from Mars; he wears a “weight belt” of batteries to prevent his floating away, and is convinced he’ll be fried by Earth’s sun, so much stronger than on Mars. David himself was a weird kid—that’s why he was beaned by the basketball—and fascinated by space—plus, his wife was adopted. He’s pretty sure he knows what he’s getting into.

He’s very gentle about approaching Dennis; they play ball a bit with Dennis still in the box, until David gives him some very strong sunblock and sunglasses, which the boy immediately dons. He wears the sunblock through most of the movie, looking like a little ghost with big hair. Finally, Dennis goes home with David on a trial basis. He likes Somewhere, whom he redubs Flomar; he welcomes the astronomical display light David installs in his room, though he does point out that the planets aren’t to the proper scale…
David’s almost-girlfriend Harlee (Amanda Peet) is taken with the boy, but he’s not warm toward her. Dennis is a poker-faced kid, alarming Liz’s children when, instead of mustard, he douses his hot dog with soda pop. David urges him to play baseball; maybe he can be a superstar. Dennis gravely informs him that superstars don’t exist, only supernovas—and white dwarfs, of course. “I deserve you,” says David.

One evening, David is taken aback when Dennis’s “Martian wishes” seem to make the traffic lights change. The boy “gives” David his own Martian wish, advising him not to waste it. “You’re a freaky little dude,” says David. Things are rocky for a while, but then David slowly realizes that in a sense, every child is a Martian—an intelligent creature thrust into a world they don’t know, but which they have to understand. “A little Martian chose you to teach him how to be human,” someone points out.

The boy is soon ousted from ordinary second grade. The teacher’s a bit unsure of her decision, but does point out “Dennis needs special attention were not equipped to offer here,” so David has to find another school. He’s supported by Harlee and Liz, even by Jeff, who still urges David to complete that book. Events build to, as mentioned earlier, a crisis that’s a little hard to believe, but the rest of the movie more than makes up for that lapse.

John Cusack is excellent in this kind of role: an intelligent guy facing a crisis he’s both amused by and not quite ready to deal with. These stories follow the course of his education, and here he learns that not only is it okay for Dennis to be something of a Martian, but it’s okay for him to be that way, too. The script by Seth E. Bass and Jonathan Tolins is less credible and more sentimental than the award-winning, semi-autobiographical story by David Gerrold. (Who is a science fiction writer, a single man who adopted a young son—then wrote a story about it.) They wanted a more movie-like movie and got one, too—director Menno Meyjes isn’t especially inventive, mostly apparently just putting the script on the screen. But they’ve also lost something, too. Gerrold, who’s also a TV writer, might have been a better choice to adapt his own story.

Although there’s not much for Harlee to do, Amanda Peet is excellent as the bright, puzzled Harlee, very convincing, very expressive. The other supporting players, particularly Platt, Okonedo, Richard Schiff and Anjelica Huston, are also very good. Joan Cusack is always, but always excellent, and it’s fun to see her playing her own brother’s sister.

But apart from John Cusack, the outstanding actor here is young Bobby Coleman. Meyjes was right to trust this boy to carry scene after scene—this kid is the real deal, completely convincing with every gesture, every word. There’s nothing of the kid actor about him; he’s as in the moment as a great Method actor—he never overplays a thing, even in the somewhat soppy climax. He’s so convincing you begin to wonder if he might really be from another planet.

This movie was essentially ready for release a year ago. I don’t know why it was held back, but maybe it was the immense difficulty in deciding on an ad campaign for it. “Martian Child” has almost no story at all, being instead a series of funny, touching incidents about a man trying to learn just what this child is that he’s taken into his life, to be what the boy needs—and to find himself in all this, too. YOU think up the ads.

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