Directed by Menno Meyjes
Written by Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins, based on a novel by David Gerrold
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Joan Cusack, and Bobby Coleman
John Cusack is one of those actors who doesn’t quite fit in with Hollywood. And that’s a good thing. Getting his start as a teen actor in movies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Say Anything,” he transitioned into adult roles without a sex scandal or a stint in rehab. Even more impressive, he has continued to choose projects where he plays quirky, off-beat characters who are more lovable because of their flaws. In “Martian Child,” Cusack follows this trend with an emotional performance that had me laughing, crying, and just plain rooting for him in the theater.
“Martian Child” is the story of David Gordon, a science fiction writer and widower who decides to fulfill his and his late wife’s dream to adopt a child. He adopts Dennis (played by Bobby Coleman), an abandoned young boy who spends his days in a box and believes he is from Mars, but David is drawn to him. The movie examines the trials David encounters as he tries to show Dennis that he is not an alien (literally and figuratively) but an Earthling with a family who loves him. All the while, both are trying to use each other to repair the damage caused by the loss of loved ones.
Also featuring Amanda Peet as Harlee, David’s happily off-beat best friend, and Joan Cusack (Cusack’s real life sister) as his sister Liz, the entire cast gives a moving performance. John Cusack’s inner pain is evident when his dog, who he got with his late wife, passes away; he sits on the edge of a bed with his head in his hands long enough that you believe he has just lost the last living memory of his wife. He is neither sappy nor cold — he is simply real.
Coleman also does a wonderful job as the deeply troubled child who invents an imaginary world for himself so that he doesn’t have to think about the real one in which he was abandoned by his parents as a baby. Playing a child with such complex problems as Dennis, without overtly describing those problems, is incredibly difficult and requires an actor to master the art of subtlety. Most child actors who play major roles in movies are guilty of being overly precocious. Luckily, Coleman doesn’t fall into this trap. While he is more thoughtful than most seven-year-olds, his actions and speeches are realistic as he explores his new world and often repeats things he has heard David say. This realism is a testament to both the script and the acting of this young actor.
Although the movie is emotionally intense at times, it is not actually depressing. Both Cusack and Peet show off their comedic skills with well-timed jokes that received some pretty big laughs from the audience. And with such an unusual subplot that tried to bring an alien world down to earth, the writers were not afraid to revert to a more predictable overall storyline or a happy ending. That said, they shied away from one possible plotline — there was no real romantic interest. Sure, there was a spark between the characters of David and Harlee, but it was pushed into the background as the love between David and Dennis took center stage. As much as I love romance in a movie (and I do), this was absolutely the right move.
At the end, the movie was not so perfectly (and unrealistically) wrapped up that you believed these characters had left all problems behind. Instead, you know they will face more troubles, but they will survive, just like all of us. Ends are the most difficult part of any piece of work, but this one was beautifully poignant and absolutely appropriate.
Go see “Martian Child.” There are no explosions, weddings, or heroes. But there is life.