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by: Scott Renshaw

The recent release SIMON BIRCH, based on a best-selling novel, told the story of two boys who formed a close friendship. Both outcasts in their community, they shared many adventures, some humorous and some serious. The resulting film was mawkish and erratic, sacrificing strong and consistent characterizations for cheap slapstick and even cheaper melodrama.

I love the cosmic symmetry that allows me to point out exactly what's right about one film because of what went wrong in another. THE MIGHTY is also based on a best-selling novel, and also tells the story of two young boys who form a close frienship. Both outcasts in their community, they share many adventures, some humorous and some serious. Yet THE MIGHTY is superior to SIMON BIRCH in almost every way. It's a family film about triumph over adversity that earns honest emotional response.

Rodman Philbrick's popular young adult novel Freak the Mighty inspired this tale of two Cincinnati middle-schoolers coping with difficult circumstances. Max Kane (Elden Henson) is an academically- challenged giant of a lad, troubled by taunting classmates and a family tragedy which has forced him to live with his grandparents (Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton). His new next-door neighbors are single mom Gwendolyn Dillon (Sharon Stone) and her son Kevin (Kieran Culkin), a sharp-witted genius afflicted with a crippling genetic disease. Gradually, the two come to realize they have much to offer one another. While Kevin tutors Max in reading and becomes his inspirational voice, Max literally carries Kevin on his shoulders to become his legs. Together, they become a formidable force, a justice-seeking two-headed knight Kevin dubs Freak the Mighty.

You might expect THE MIGHTY to be just a glorified "Afterschool Special," unless you knew the work of director Peter Chelsom. The auteur behind the eccentric gems HEAR MY SONG and FUNNY BONES gives the story a fantastic flair, with images of the symbiotic duo crossing swords with enemies in their flights of fancy. Even the scenes clearly designed to draw cheers, including a gym class basketball game, somehow seem too surreal to be manipulative. THE MIGHTY has more than its share of messages, yet it rarely feels like a "message movie." It has more than its share of shifts in tone, yet it rarely feels inconsistent.

Give credit both to Chelsom and to his two young leads, who deliver a pair of superb performances. Kieran Culkin (yes, his younger brother) finds the fine line between intelligent and obnoxious -- a line most young actors trample into dust -- to make Kevin an appealing protagonist. Elden Henson, however, provides the film's real emotional core as the deeply troubled Max. There's not a false note to be found, from his early scenes as surly introvert to his later fierce devotion to Kevin. Culkin and Henson share a casual chemistry even when they're exchanging deep thoughts, preventing the flashing red "lesson" light to go on during their scenes together. Ably assisted by restrained, dignified supporting turns from Stone, Rowlands and Stanton, Culkin and Henson create a solid dramatic foundation.

THE MIGHTY only gets clumsy when James Gandolfini shows up as Max's bad-news father. The sub-plot's darker tone, involving murder and kidnapping, are challenging enough to fit into a family film without Gandolfini playing the role as a leering monster. That's aside from Gillian Anderson's look-at-me-I'm-versatile turn as a good-hearted girl from the wrong side of the tracks (or perhaps a Tennessee Williams play). Yet even then Chelsom rallies to give us a potent climax without an ounce of fat. The power of the story, and its convincing bonds of friendship, make teary-eyed actors and sweeping musical cues utterly unnecessary. SIMON BIRCH's hystrionics bullied viewers into caring about two young friends. THE MIGHTY builds two character


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