Subtleties, humor make ‘Martian Child’

REVIEW – In the first act of John Cusack’s one-two patriarchal-tearjerker punch this season, Martian Child (soon to be followed by the Oscar-buzzed Grace Is Gone) shows Cusack in his first major role as a father, and it’s just enough to make you fall in love.

In a movie that explores the difficult guidance decisions a parent makes while raising a child, Martian Child feels completely at ease, filling most of its running time with intimate, behavior-driven scenes between Bobby Coleman and Cusack. Coleman plays Cusack’s adopted son Dennis, a young boy who believes he’s a Martian. And 8-year-old Coleman has no problem sharing the screen with the beloved Cusack – he tap dances around him in most scenes.

Some chunks of the movie might be slow, but thoughtful scene-pacing in exchange for plot overload leaves you walking away knowing exactly who these characters are and understanding their journey.

Cusack does a fine job of portraying a realistic parent. He comes off as a natural when he’s trying to crack Dennis’ defensive shell with billiards sessions and plate-breaking parties. But he also conveys shear defeat and frustration when Dennis regresses due to his severe emotional blockades.

Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins’ script and Cusack’s acting mesh brilliantly in depicting the difficulty of teaching a child how to act in the world. Dennis asks David, “Is it good to be like everyone else?” Cusack sits there in hidden horror and you know what’s going through his mind: do I break this kid’s spirit by turning him into a “go-with-the-flow, happy little GAP kid” or allow him to be himself? The film takes a realistic course by having Cusack break the idealism of “just be yourself” – sometimes, yes; other times, no.

Cusack benefits greatly from the one-liners that Bass and Tolins wrote for him.

His sister, played by real-life sibling Joan Cusack, tells David he’s hysterical. Cusack responds, “Hysteria is a way of life. It’s a clothing line, at least.” Dennis wears a “weight belt” with what looks like miniature Coke cans attached to it so that he won’t float back to Mars. In one awkward scene where Dennis won’t let go of Cusack’s hand to go to school, Cusack calmly states to the teacher, “We’re having gravity issues.” These well-written quips make Cusack irresistible.

Director Menno Meyjes creates terrific subtleties in Martian Child that add an incredible level of heart to the film. When David and Dennis are grocery shopping, stacked cases of Mars candy bars are situated behind where Dennis stands. In the many car scenes between the new father and son, the moving reflections on the windshield and the blurred lights in the background make it look like they are flying through space.

The film’s most subtle and heartbreaking scene occurs outside after an unsuccessful dinner at David’s sister’s house. Dennis tries to hold David’s hand, but he isn’t looking and puts it in his pocket. David walks to the car and Dennis follows without saying a word. David is unaware of Dennis’ first attempt at affection.

Martian Child does, however, fall victim to many painful Hollywood conventions. A two-dimensional child services worker wants to take Dennis away for no convincing reason. An unnecessary romance takes place between Cusack and a grossly underused Amanda Peet, whose role as the surrogate voice of David’s departed wife would have been a much smarter road to take. And then there’s the melodramatic, illogical climactic scene that involves heights.

Despite Hollywood pitfalls, Martian Child stands firmly as an incredibly sweet and thoughtful film that outweighs the clichés it employs. If you don’t walk out of the theater with a smile on your face, you might not be from this planet.

Jesse North can be reached at jesse.north@temple.edu.

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