2007 / Director. Menno Meyjes.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
MARTIAN CHILD is far from a perfect film and the studio’s handling of the adaptation from its source material raises a lot of questions, but nevertheless it feels like a passion project for John Cusack, who has been known to dismiss his own work in the past.
Inspired by true events and based on a biographical novel, the film tells the story of a widower, David, who decides to adopt a traumatised child who has completely withdrawn from the world and lives in constant state of fantasy. He believes that he comes from Mars and that his mission is drawing to a close. When David exhausts all methods of reaching out to the boy he finds himself in a race against time to make a substantial connection before Child Services intervene and return the kid to the custody of the state.
We’ve seen these stories countless times before, and the whole concept is a tried and true formula, but where MARTIAN CHILD sets itself apart is in its depiction of the fantasy while balancing the drama. The boy’s disconnection is maintained throughout the film, which proves to be both frustrating and refreshing, and John Cusack’s commitment to his character makes it one of his best performances in years. He presents us with a fragile persona that is immediately sympathetic and he refrains from the indulgences of being too sappy.
MARTIAN CHILD has the appearance of a family film, but while it is definitely suitable for all ages, its appeal will favour the adults. I imagine that most kids will struggle with the dramatic arc of the story and there probably isn’t enough in it to keep them engaged.
The disappointing of the film’s adaptation, as I alluded to, lies within its depiction of the lead character. In the novel (and in reality) David’s character was a single gay man who adopted a boy. The fact that the studio chose to make him straight and went the extra mile to imply a love interest suggests an ingrained fear amongst the decision-makers. The story is powerful and to rewrite David’s sexuality seems like a missed opportunity to me. And if fear of dividing the audience was a factor then his sexuality could have just as easily been ambiguous without affecting the emotional tug of the story. It is concerning that an entire re-write of the character plus the addition of a female love-interest seemed necessary to them.
With that said, MARTIAN CHILD still has a lot of merit. It’s core themes of abandonment and dissociation are well-handled and John Cusack is exceptional. Joan Cusack offers her obligatory support nicely and Amanda Peet delivers her performance with subtly and sincerity… even if her character is that concerning deviation. Considering that this is a film that flew under the radar and garnered very little fan-fare, I would consider it an obscurity worthy of your consideration.