by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I began it by running a TV-movie I recorded last night from Lifetime that turned out to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen from this source (or, quite frankly, from any other): For the Love of a Child, a docudrama about the organization Childhelp International and the two remarkable women who founded it, Sara O’Meara (Peri Gilpin) and Yvonne Fedderson (Teri Polo). The film flashes back for its first hour between a “present” story set in 1975 and a flashback to 1959,when Sara and Yvonne are entertainers in a USO troupe in Tokyo (they do an amateurish but very charming version of Cole Porter’s “Friendship”) when they’re rushed from the stage as a typhoon is hitting and driven through the streets of Tokyo. Their car gets stuck and they see a crowd of street orphans in desperate need, and insist on picking them up and hiding them out in their hotel room.
After attempting to place them in several Japanese orphanages, they realize that the kids are being rejected because they’re only half-Japanese — their fathers are U.S. military personnel — and find the one orphanage whose owner, Mama Ji (Mieko Ouchi), is willing to take them but has no room or food for them. Our intrepid heroines raise the money and, with the help of the commander at the base where they were performing, expand the orphanage and remain in Asia, building a network of orphanages throughout Japan, Korea and ultimately Viet Nam — until the Viet Nam war forces them to evacuate the children they can save while the others are killed by the Viet Cong.
The 1970’s story, which constitutes the main plot line, deals with a nine-year-old boy named Jacob (a truly remarkable performance by child actor Matthew Knight) who is systematically beaten and abused by his stepfather, Bart Fletcher (David McNally), a well-connected attorney who thinks he can pull rank on anybody and get out of responsibility for his brutality, while Jacob’s mom (Carrie Schiffler) alternately looks on helplessly and takes the side of her husband over her son. Somehow Jacob manages to find the Childhelp hotline number and to sneak into a closet with a cordless phone long enough to call it and stay on the line long enough for the call to be traced — it doesn’t spare him stepdad’s latest session of abuse but it does allow the police to find the family’s house and catch the Parents from Hell with Jacob bruised, battered and burned with an iron, and tied to the bed (with tell-tale markings in the paint on the bedposts that prove this hasn’t been the first time they did that). Jacob is taken out of Arizona to Childhelp’s ranch in Beaumont, California, which — as we learn later in the program — is designed to provide a therapeutic environment for the child, including encouraging them to draw and paint as a way of offering clues as to just what happened to them and what kind of therapy they need to have a fighting chance of getting over it.
At first Jacob refuses to talk at all, then he starts speaking but only in the third person (“Jacob” wants this and feels that … ), and the breakthrough comes when Jacob is in the outdoor portion of the facility and attempts to spear a cow with a pitchfork, and ranchhand Richard (John Pyper-Ferguson, not a drop-dead good-looker but in his own way one of the most attractive men I’ve seen in a Lifetime movie) stops him and tells him that the cow, too, had been abused — someone had thrown acid on her and badly burned her right side — and Jacob identifies. Also in the facility are Mike (Jake Smith), whose mom burned the letters “BAD BOY” on his back with lit cigarettes; and Laura (Emily Hirst), whose mom moved in a boyfriend who molested her and was sent to jail for 10 months for doing so; this guy also slashed her face with a razor so no one else would find her attractive, and apparently (it’s not spelled out but it’s strongly hinted) he and the mom were doing drugs together (when mom appeals to the Childhelp staff to be allowed to take her daughter back, she says she’s been attending meetings regularly but it’s not specified whether her 12-step issue involved alcohol, drugs or both) — and the Childhelp staff read her the riot act and say there’s no way they’re releasing her daughter to her until she gets rid of the scumbag boyfriend, whom she insists she still loves (“Yeah, he’s raping my underage daughter regularly, and he slashed her face with a razor — but I still love him!”).
For the Love of a Child is a movie that works on almost every conceivable level. The script by Duane Poole is beautifully calibrated, taking us to the depths of human depravity and the heights of human nobility and never letting us forget that as much as we may admire the people who made Childhelp work, we also can’t help but feel a deep sense of shame for the evil in our species that made their work necessary. There’s a marvelous subplot — again, kept understated and in perspective but nonetheless there, and adding to the tapestry of human nature in this script — of how Childhelp staff member Annie (Maria del Mar) gets so wrapped up in her work at the ranch that she neglects her own daughter Julie (Eden Sollereder), who at one point chews out her mom, “You don’t care about me — all you care about are those child freaks!” Director Douglas Barr trusts this story enough to tell it and stay out of its way; there are no digital “flanging” effects, few oblique camera angles, no directorial fireworks to take our attention away from the situations and emotions evoked by Poole’s script and the uniformly first-rate acting.
Peri Gilpin and Teri Polo manage the major feat of playing their characters at different ages and remaining credible throughout, and they make the women’s passion understandable and admirable without pushing the situation over into deliberate tear-jerking. David McNally as the abusive parent turns in one of the greatest portrayals of controlled evil I’ve seen on screen, and the most remarkable performance is the one given by child actor Matthew Knight as Jacob. He’s utterly believable as a boy bludgeoned and bruised into catatonia and traumatic paranoia, and equally effective once the layers of psychological scarring begin to peel off and he becomes more human but also more vulnerable — never more so than when his mom and stepfather come to Childhelp for a supervised visit and the creep demands him back, precipitating Jacob’s attempt to run away for fear that the people at Childhelp will have to send him back to the Parents from Hell. There are a few minor flaws in this movie — some confusing editing early on back and forth between Japan in 1959 and California in 1975, and a rather dorky-looking actor who appears in a postlude, set in the 1980’s, in which an adult Jacob revisits Childhelp, introduces himself as a medical student and offers himself as a volunteer: the concept is moving but Ryan Ash as the adult Jacob does not look like someone we could believe Matthew Knight would grow up to look like.
Still, those minor flaws don’t take away from a brilliant film, a good deal better than any Lifetime movie would seem to have had the right to be and one that compares favorably with many much more expensive and elaborate projects aimed at the big screen; while so many movies these days keep us at an emotional distance and invite us to look down on the characters as if they were lab rats, For the Love of a Child’s makers not only invite us but want us to feel for the characters, to be wrenched by their pains and exhilarated at the ultimate triumph — at least of the lucky ones.