*Martian Child (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
There's a theory I've heard that we all get the children we deserve: the former teenage troublemaker, say, ends up parenting the kid who dabbles in juvenile delinquency.
John Cusack's David Gordon knows this in Martian Child: He's a science-fiction writer a bestselling one, at that, who sees movies produced from his books and he's got Dennis, a troubled 8-year-old who has created a fiction for himself, believing that he's "from Mars." This delusion's made quite convincing at times by the kid's ferocious intelligence; at a baseball game, David explains what it takes to be a "superstar," only to hear Dennis respond that "there are no superstars, just supernovas and white dwarfs." David, with Cusack's usual engaging good humor and charm, must concede Dennis' point.
David didn't father this child, though, so the shared tendency for fantasy is not down to genetics. He adopted Dennis, and gravitated toward the kid because, well, he was a bit of a weirdo as a child, too. He sees not only a bit of himself in Dennis but also an opportunity to use his understanding of the power of the imagination to help a kid on the verge of being written off as hopeless.
Ah, but that sounds hopelessly sentimental, yet none of it plays out that way in Martian Child. There are signs, early on, that we could have been heading for some terribly clichd complications: Amanda Peet as the sister of David's dead wife alleviates David's crushing loneliness, but the sudden new attraction between them never overwhelms the larger story, and remains a path for the story to continue along after the movie ends. And the "dramatic" courtroom battle that seems to be threatening as David struggles with Dennis' many problems, social services reconsiders its decision to let a single man adopt never develops.
Which is all as it should be. This is, wonderfully, a smart and snappy yet never sappy portrait of a budding parent-and-kid romance, and a lovely ode to nonconformity, to being your own person even if the rest of the world has some issues with that. And the deeply satisfying ordinary magic and everyday mystery of seeing two unlikely people come together and make a life for themselves is not all down to Cusack's everyguy charisma.
Bobby Coleman, as the prickly Dennis, is able astonishingly, for an actor of such tender years to create a Dennis who is both difficult to like and impossible not to love. I'd never imagined a child actor could project both "inscrutable" and "vulnerable" in quite such a winning combination, but Coleman is fascinating to watch as his Dennis slowly unfurls himself to the possibility that David is finally a parent who is not going to abandon him.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by science-fiction writer David Gerrold, Martian Child is a perfectly apt exploration of love and family in the early 21st century. As pop culture's embracing of science fiction and everyone's embracing of modern science-fictional technology has shaped us, it seems impossible not to funnel ideas about love and family through a lens that encompasses the vastness of the universe and the smallness of ourselves within it.
Only a Gen-X icon like Cusack could have sold us on this idea. And he does.