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
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
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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