`Mask,' a spunky story of human resilience

Like many films about ill or handicapped people, ``Mask'' dwells less on the condition itself than on the human strength and resilience it calls forth. The hero, a teen-ager with a disfigured face, meets daily challenges with a good-natured fortitude that would be impressive under far less trying circumstances. The film has little insight to offer beyond its upbeat outlook, and even this is achieved partly by glossing over or prettifying grim details. But the movie's lack of depth is made up in clarity, sincerity, and a spunky humor that almost stops sentimentality from finally stealing the show.

The story centers on Rocky, a bright 16-year-old who got his nickname not from being tough, but from rocking his cradle with extra glee as an infant. His masklike face is more a nuisance than a worry to this well-adjusted kid, and he takes in stride the stares and occasional insults of others.

His biggest problem, in fact, isn't his face but his mother -- a foul-mouthed drug abuser who spends her life partying with a middle-aged motorcycle gang. Much of ``Mask'' explores Rocky's relationship with her, contrasting the woman's inner weakness (temporary, it turns out) with her son's inner strength. The movie also pokes into their relationship with their biker pals, who turn out to be a swell bunch of fellas once you get to know them.

Based on a true case history, ``Mask'' has a lot of things going for it. One is the forthright approach of director Peter Bogdanovich to his subject. He introduces us to Rocky cleanly and clearly, with none of the horror-show buildups ``The Elephant Man'' used in treating a similar theme. He presents scruffy characters and scrubby neighborhoods without apology or condescension, at least by Hollywood standards. He doesn't shy away from emotion.

He also has a few superb performances in his corner. Best of all is Eric Stoltz, who plays Rocky with a warmth and wit that border on brilliant. As his mom, Cher gives another of her nuanced portrayals. Richard Dysart does a likable turn as Rocky's grandpa. And a husky actor named Dennis Burkley walks away with several scenes as a mute biker named Dozer.

But the movie has flaws that offset these assets. For one, it breezes past big questions without any try at answering them: Why is Rocky's mother so messed up? What's the source of his own adjustment to a hard childhood? And by the way, how does he win all the school prizes without doing a lick of homework? We're asked to accept incidents and feelings that aren't explained or justified -- which makes the movie's emotional impact seem arbitrary and unearned.

The film also has a slippery attitude toward some characters, especially Rocky's mother. She's a lovable rebel at the start, an irresponsible wreck in the middle, and a perfect parent at the end -- changing her stripes whenever the story needs a boost. This would be all right if Mr. Bogdanovich and his screenwriter, Anna Hamilton Phelan, explored the roots of these different phases. But they stay on the surface, content with quick effects and superficial feelings.

The bikers are badly handled, too. At first it's refreshing to see such apparent misfits treated with no preachy or judgmental stances. Their freakish style is a neat switch on the middle-class conventions of most soap opera, and they make good friends for Rocky, since they also stand outside social norms. But there's no hint of what makes these people tick; aside from their clothes and noisy parties, they're as boringly bourgeois as any characters in memory.

In sum, ``Mask'' is a mixed bag, scoring some effective points but missing many of its own possibilities. Given the film's overdoses of sentiment, it's hard to imagine why Bogdanovich has publicly chastised Universal Pictures for trimming a funeral scene. He's also upset at the replacement of some Bruce Springsteen music with ditties by Bob Seger, but I'd advise him not to worry. The soundtrack still holds enough superb '50s rock by Little Richard and Gary U.S. Bonds to carry the day against any odds.

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