Solid lead performances and sustained levels of moderate engagement mark Orphan, a slightly above average evil-tyke movie with an infusion of Electra complex and a good narrative twist only half-heartedly rendered. “Tweener” status may relegate what is in many ways an admirable effort to a shortened theatrical shelf life; Orphan is too dramatically involved and tony for gorehounds or impatient horror fans, and marketed in too base a fashion to lure the same adult crowd that made 2005’s Hide and Seek, a passably similar tale of shattered domesticity built around a little girl, into a $120 million worldwide hit.
After a miscarriage of their third child, John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) look to fill the void by adopting, expanding a family that already includes their 12-year-old son Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and much younger, deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Visiting an orphanage, they settle on nine-year-old, artistically inclined Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, above right), whose lilting Russian accent and proper dress and demeanor give her additional strikes of “otherness” with Danny and her new schoolmates.
As accidents and other narrowly avoided disasters with Esther at the scene mount, Kate grows panicked, and more suspicious of her new daughter’s true background. But John doubts Kate’s distrust, which in turn creates a rift that exacerbates old tensions and rekindles old arguments between the two of them. Esther picks up sign language quite readily, and uses this to manipulate Max to her advantage as she takes increasingly radical steps to seal off Kate and ingratiate herself with John. Things finally come to a head after Danny is seriously injured in a fire.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) gets a lot of mileage out of the snowy Connecticut environs, but screenwriter David Johnson’s yawningly conventional, thrill-infused ending — unfolding on a frozen lake that figures prominently in Kate’s fractured, addiction-addled past — bends too much toward parallel narrative cleverness. It’s true, too, that the third act twist necessary to explain the physical extremities of some of Esther’s actions could, and should, be explored in deeper and more satisfying ways than the exposition-laden phone call that sets off the penultimate gallop of the movie’s closing reel. Yet there’s also a satisfying humanistic component to the movie, many moments of uncommon tenderness for such a genre piece, and a solid performance from especially Farmiga, who nicely sketches Kate’s pain, sadness and self-loathing. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Warner Bros., R, 123 minutes)