11 August 2006 | EUyeshima
Emotionally Draining Drama Focuses on the Funding-Challenged Treatment of the Mentally Disabled
What an odd, unexpected movie this is. Stanley Kramer reunited Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland from his 1961 "Judgment at Nuremberg" for this grim near-docudrama about mentally disabled children in a state-run institution. Again working from a script by Abby Mann, Kramer handed over the directorial reins to John Cassavetes in only his third film. Some of Cassavetes' cinema-verité style is on display here, though there are definitely enough soap opera turns to make you realize that this is ultimately a social message film.
The director cast real patients from the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, as most of the handicapped children and in one harrowing scene, as the mentally defective adults. This lends a searing veracity to many of the scenes, and the effect is mesmerizing. Intriguingly, a few are actors, and you are likely to recognize a quick glimpse of Billy Mumy (Will Robinson in TV's "Lost in Space") as one of the children. In the central role of Reuben, a borderline case, a twelve-year old actor named Bruce Ritchey is convincing in evoking the emotional isolation and inward terrorism of his character. The plot revolves around Reuben and the battle of wills over his treatment between Dr. Matthew Clark, the fair-minded director of the mental hospital, and Jean Hansen, a newly hired teacher.
Lancaster is such a forthright screen presence that he is automatically credible in the authority role of Clark. Garland, looking bloated and overly made up, has a role that suits her persona at the time. As Jean, she poignantly conveys an unfulfilled maternal instinct especially as she starts to focus most of her time on Reuben to the inadvertent detriment of the other children. Even without an Arlen song, Garland can capture the internal tremolo of a woman whose only avenue for love is the children. Obviously the character was tailored for Garland, as Jean is a former musician trained at Julliard who failed to become a concert pianist. In a defining moment, she does get to teach one simple rhyming song, "Snowflakes", to the children for a Thanksgiving pageant.
I like the fact that there is nary a romantic spark between Lancaster and Garland in the story, as they are there to represent opposing perspectives. I only wish there was a bit more emotionalism in the way they argued about it, as it takes an hour for either one of them to raise their voices. Due mostly to Mann's unimpactful, enervating script, the whole film feels mannered in that way, which is what prevents the film from being wholly satisfying. The lack of an emotional pay-off, while realistic, does not provide the closure a viewer needs with such a desultory story.
Familiar faces fill the supporting cast. Cassavetes' wife, a young Gena Rowlands, plays Reuben's brittle, guilt-ridden mother Sophie, while Steven Hill plays the emotionally disconnected father who takes Reuben to the hospital only to abandon him. Paul Stewart and John Marley play state officials who need to assess future funding of the school. It's a tough movie to sit through, but the honest depiction of the children and the state of such facilities at the time, along with the low-key sincerity of Lancaster and Garland, make this one worthwhile.