by Laura Tucker
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Sometimes you just see a movie that looks so intriguing, it’s a must to see. That was the case each and every time I saw the previews for Martian Child starring John Cusack. A little boy that lives in a box and thinks he’s from Mars, adopted by a single man working as a science-fiction writer, would be draw enough, but once they get into the psychoanalysis of it all, whether it’s okay to be a little different, the previews would pull me in every time. Finally getting a chance to see the full movie, after months of previews, I wasn’t disappointed.
Cusack stars as David Gordon, the widowed science-fiction writer. As a child he was different, making his life very difficult, and he explains he started writing then, escaping through his stories. He had a bestseller with the book Dracoban, explaining in an interview that science-fiction writers always make one of their characters autobiographical, but in this case, he’s not the human, but the creature. His publisher is now demanding a quick finish of Dracoban II, and he seems to be nowhere close, being very uninspired since the death of his wife.
Before she died, David and his wife had been planning on starting a family, and he can’t seem to shake that need, thinking maybe that’s a reason to his unhappiness, the lack of his own family. He has his sister, Liz (real-life sister Joan Cusack), and her family, as well as an old dog named Somewhere who sometimes reminds him too much of his wife, and an old friend of his, Harlee (Amanda Peet), that gets closer and closer to becoming his current romantic interest, but he still longs for a the family he and his wife should have had together.
With the thought that most people spend more time trying to figure out how to raise tomatoes than raise children, David meets with a woman from an adoption agency who tells him she has found the perfect child for him, and introduces him to Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a boy who was abandoned and suffers emotional abuse. To protect himself, he spends the daytime in a cardboard box, marked “amazon.com, Fragile. Handle With Care,” and believes he is from Mars.
There’s something that connects between David and Dennis, and neither one is completely comfortable with where they seem inevitably headed, yet they can’t deny the way they’re drawn to each other. To convince him to come out of his box, David brings Dennis sunscreen and sunglasses. It’s then he sees the belt made of C and D batteries taped together around his waist. Dennis explains it’s his anti-gravity belt, because if he’s not wearing it, he’ll float back to Mars to his first family. Eventually they both bite the bullet, and move in with each other, and David finds parenting a troubled child way more than he bargained for.
Martian Child not only awakens every emotion in us with Dennis and David’s story, but it also turns us into amateur psychiatrists. It’s obvious both adult and child have been through too much, and both know to feel okay again about themselves, they need each other. It’s made perhaps too painfully obvious that David is connecting to his own childhood and that Dennis creates the story about being from Mars to escape from the horrors he’s lived through, just as David did with his stories when he was younger.
Yet, even though we know this will have a happy ending eventually, and even though we see many of the troubles coming before there’s even a hint of them happening, it doesn’t stop them from tugging at ours. Dennis is a kleptomaniac and explains it saying that he’s doing research for Mars to find out how families on earth live, but we know it’s because he really wants to find out what makes a family anywhere. He wants to know why he hasn’t gotten what he seems to long for so much. When he refuses to eat anything but Lucky Charms, we know it’s his safety net. Lucky Charms are safe to him, just like his battery gravity belt. Above all else, he needs to feel safe.
Of course, there has to be a bad guy in the film. That role is represented by the guy in charge of the adoption case (Richard Schiff) who doesn’t think a widowed man is well-equipped to handle a boy with such extreme emotional problems. He wants to take Dennis away, and it does become a very familiar theme of films with an adoption, yet it’s painfully obvious to everyone but Schiff’s character that both man and child are better together than apart, no matter what problems exist. As David asks at one point, he gets not wanting to bring another child into this world, but how do you argue against the logic of loving one that’s already here?
Not that Martian Child is one huge tearfest, it does have some light moments as well, many of them provided by Joan Cusack who seems to bring those moments into all her work, starting with her bit trying to get a drink out of the fountain in Sixteen Candles with her back brace on, forcing her to wipe her mouth with the little apron sewn onto the figure on the front of her sweatshirt. In this film, she asks her kids why they’re wrestling with the old dog, wondering if they’d do that to Grandma.
The few laughs seem to come along in Martian Child just when you need them, when the heavy drama and emotion are sometimes getting unbearable, even for those of us watching. Predictable or not, it moves you.
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