Well acted if sweetly moralizing, Martian Child tells the
story of a science fiction writer who adopts an orphaned boy who claims to be
from Mars. Based on the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story by genre
luminary David Gerrold, the film is an extremely personable, smarter than
average family dramedy with just a pint-sized pinch of the is-he-or-isn’t-he
commotion of 2001’s K-Pax, which also centered around the claims of an alleged
is feeling some pressure from his nervous agent (Oliver Platt) to deliver a
sequel to a publisher desperate for their own “Harry Potter
in space.” David, though, finds his head elsewhere. Ignoring the
well-intentioned advice of his sister Liz (Joan Cusack), herself a mother of
two, David files paperwork to adopt Dennis (Bobby Coleman, above left), an almost
pathologically introverted youngster who keeps insisting he’s an alien.
Dennis — who applies slick layers of sunscreen to his skin,
and sports a “weight belt” ringed with batteries, all to keep himself
from drifting up and away, he explains — comes to live with David, and
rechristens his aging dog with the Martian name “Flomar.” David, along
with his friend Harlee (Amanda Peet), teaches Dennis baseball, and eases his
transition to school, all the while trying to strike a balance between
indulging Dennis’ quirks and slowly socializing him, drawing him out of his shell
of defensive construction.
Owing to its literary roots, Martian Child benefits from the
fact that all its characters are of above average intelligence, and thus
approach problems with at least a small degree of self-awareness. This means
many scenes can be played on several levels at one time. The movie tugs at
heartstrings, yes, but does so in a manner free from pretense or affectation.
jettisons the source text’s autobiographical elements about a single gay man,
recasting David as a widower and playing up his own troubled, misfit adolescent
past. Despite the potential for disaster such a tweak invites, the changes are
handled not only convincingly but also artfully, since the alienation David
felt from his artistic inclinations, pre-career success, remains intact, informing
his adult personality.
The only big knock on the film — apart from an arguable schmaltz
factor — is that David’s professional pressures are less convincingly sketched.
That they recede into the background for so much of the film is fine until a
jarring reentry of slightly heightened tone involving Anjelica Huston’s
The Color Purple who first transitioned behind the camera with 2002’s Max, also
starring Cusack, has a fantastic touch with actors. He doesn’t lean too much on
Coleman, who delivers his lines in a prepubescent rasp, to play up Dennis’
quirks; for every bit of emoting, there’s a matching bit or two of guarded
silence or sparse exchange.
Cusack typically injects no small amount of caginess into
almost all his performances, but he eases up on that persona to an admirable and
pleasing degree here
. The fun interplay with his real-life sister, which
underpins a number of scenes, might well be expected, but Cusack has worked
with almost all of the other actors with whom he shares significant screen time
— Peet, Platt, Huston and Schiff — and that loose-limbed idiosyncrasy also helps give the movie a genuine
sense of rootedness. Then, of course, there’s the matter of Cusack’s chemistry
with Coleman. The pair has a low-key, very believable rapport that isn’t born
of endless patter. Martian Child embraces offbeatness and whimsy, recognizing the
importance of small actions, and for the most part artfully obscures its clichés with this tack.
For the full review, from Screen International, click here.