NEW YORK — HOLLYWOOD has been inching toward more concern with family audiences and with family subjects in older-audience movies. Recent results include the likable "Searching for Bobby Fischer," based on the true adventures of a seven-year-old chess prodigy, and "King of the Hill," a more hard-edged look at a 12-year-old separated from his family during the Depression years.
Continuing the trend, actor Mel Gibson now makes his directorial debut with "The Man Without a Face," a film about a 12-year-old boy's relationship with an unusual teacher who becomes his friend and mentor in a New England community.
It's a cautiously made picture, full of beautiful scenery, familiar character types, and plot twists designed to smooth away rough edges from sensitive elements in the story. But it's commendably ambitious, too, taking on a number of difficult subjects ranging from physical deformity to family dysfunction and child abuse. Most important, it takes a thoughtful and constructive approach to these matters, refusing to sensationalize them.
The main focus of the story is Chuck, a bright but insecure boy with a heavy share of problems. In order to attend a boarding school that will remove him from his constantly quarreling family, he must pass a difficult exam. But it's hard to study when your big sister is a snob, your little sister is a pest, and your mother is preoccupied with cajoling a pretentious Yale professor into becoming her fifth husband. Chuck is also bothered with uncertainty over his late father, whose life and death have never
been properly explained.
Determined to escape these distractions and succeed in his academic plan, Chuck takes an interest in a local mystery man: a loner named McCloud, who lives in a secluded house and hides his private life as zealously as he shrouds his horribly scarred face.
Ignoring the rumors surrounding McCloud, Chuck learns that he's a former teacher who left his profession after the automobile crash that damaged his appearance. Chuck talks McCloud into becoming his tutor for the big exam - an arrangement that leads to trouble when more gossip about McCloud comes out, including the allegation that he was molesting a teenage boy at the time of his accident.
Much of "The Man Without a Face" centers on Chuck's determination to befriend McCloud, and on the fine companionship that blossoms between them, giving Chuck a badly needed father-figure and McCloud a chance to interact with the world again. McCloud's relationship with Chuck is so helpful and wholesome that there's no temptation for viewers of the movie to believe the ugly charge against the teacher. It's touching to observe Chuck's trust in McCloud despite the town's bias against him.
The film's message - that appearances are only skin-deep and reveal nothing about true selfhood - is a familiar one, but it's delivered with enough drama and sincerity to renew its freshness.
Coming in the wake of highly publicized child-abuse cases in recent years, the movie may also be making something of a political statement by portraying a child-adult friendship motivated by mutual affection and respect. For every such relationship that goes astray, the film suggests, there are countless more that bring benefit to all concerned.
Gibson has done a capable job of directing "The Man Without a Face," showing little in the way of a personal style, but taking advantage of the skills brought to the project by his collaborators. Chief among them are cinematographer Don McAlpine and film editor Tony Gibbs. Malcolm MacRury wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Isabelle Holland.
Kudos go to the cast as well as the crew. It's headed by Gibson as the teacher, newcomer Nick Stahl as his pupil, Margaret Whitton as the boy's mom, Fay Masterson and Gaby Hoffman as his sisters, Richard Masur as his stepfather-to-be, and Geoffrey Lewis as the local cop.
Gibson shows solid talent for guiding performances, including his own: At one point he recites Shylock's great speech from Act III, Scene 1 of "The Merchant of Venice," and brief as the moment is, it's more profoundly touching than anything in the overrated "Hamlet" he did with filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli a couple of years ago. Splendid work.
* "The Man Without a Face" has a PG-13 rating. It contains prolonged views of the teacher's scarred face, discussion of child abuse, and vulgar language.