THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"LIKE DANDELION DUST"
Mira Sorvino explains the titular metaphor to Maxwell Perry Cotton.
You've heard stories such as the one in Like Dandelion Dust before. They aren't common, but they happen. The film, based on Karen Kingsbury's novel, starts with Ohio factory worker Rip Porter (Barry Pepper) getting drunk and beating his wife Wendy (Mira Sorvino). He goes to jail, gets seven years of rehabilitation, and comes out determined to be a better man. On his first night home, Wendy informs him that she discovered she was pregnant right after he began his incarceration. Insecure and frightened of raising a child alone, she took the only option she thought was appropriate: she put the child up for adoption. Rip, who never signed anything relinquishing his parental rights, suggests that they file to have the child returned to them. To him, it's a way of not only reclaiming lost years, but also of working toward a better tomorrow.
The boy, Joey (Maxwell Perry Cotton), lives in Florida with his affluent, loving adoptive parents, Jack and Molly Campbell (Cole Hauser and Kate Levering). They're shocked when an adoption worker informs them that the Porters want custody of Joey – and that since Rip never formally signed away his rights, the courts are going along with it. A plan is put into place to transition the boy from the parents he's always known to the biological parents he doesn't know he has. Jack and Molly try various avenues to prevent it from happening, becoming increasingly panic-stricken with each wall they hit. Eventually, they have to face the reality that they might actually lose their son.
Like Dandelion Dust does a very smart thing: it identifies with both sets of parents. It's not like the Campbells are the good people and the Porters are bad. Instead, all of them feel an emotional attachment to Joey, as well as a deep-seated need to have him in their lives. The heartbreaking terror Jack and Molly feel at the prospect of losing him is contrasted with the hope and excitement felt by Rip and Wendy, who think getting Joey will be a key ingredient to fixing their lives. Some of the best moments find the child slowly awakening to the knowledge that so many people are genuinely trying to care for him.
The final act of the film goes to some understandably heavy places as we wait to see what will happen. All the adults – for very different reasons – become desperate, leading them to make choices that up the stakes considerably. Like Dandelion Dust occasionally slips slightly into melodrama, particularly at these times, yet it's always really engrossing melodrama, with some blessedly genuine emotions at the core.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Mira Sorvino effectively playing a damaged woman looking to get back the life that could have been, and Cole Hauser (Good Will Hunting, Paparazzi) creating a man whose parental love turns into fierce protectiveness. Then there's Barry Pepper, who has perhaps the most difficult role. Rip Porter may be a flawed man, and he certainly does things you will disapprove of, but Pepper shows us that he's got good intentions underneath. It would have been simple to play Rip as a “white trash” villain. Had Pepper made that choice, the movie would have crumbled. Because the actor gives Rip a good heart – and because the screenplay wants to avoid cliché in favor of complexity – we gain real empathy for him, even if we think he and Wendy are doing more harm than good in trying to get Joey.
The story deals with some fundamental issues: What makes a family? Who has more right to a child like Joey in these tough situations – the people who raised him or the people with a genetic connection? Like Dandelion Dust takes a side in the end, yet it has the ambition to suggest that when such strong emotions are present, nothing is ever as clear-cut as we may want it to be. I found the central dilemma fascinating, and director Jon Gunn (whose previous film was the comic documentary My Date With Drew, in which an average guy tried - and succeeded - to finagle a date with actress Drew Barrymore) shows a deft touch in handling sensitive material.
Now here's the thing that may surprise you: Like Dandelion Dust is a “faith film.” However, it's not a faith film that beats you over the head with a religious message. The values of forgiveness, compassion, and devotion to family are all there, but weaved seamlessly into a fundamentally human drama. Tonally, it's more like The Blind Side than, say, Fireproof. Audiences looking for good Christian entertainment will surely take to it, but if that's not your particular thing, I doubt you'll be turned off. The faith message is so subtle and unobtrusive that the movie never once proselytizes.
As an adoptive parent myself, there were a few moments where I felt some of the legal/logistical issues of adoption weren't being portrayed with complete accuracy. Those gripes are personal and largely irrelevant to the film itself, which is rightly just trying to be a good, riveting drama. And it succeeds on that count. In the final moments, there is a beautiful scene between the two mothers that I'm not ashamed to say made me get a bit choked up. That was doubtlessly due to my own identification with the feelings that accompany the adoption process, but I'll bet that many others without that identification will get choked up too. Like Dandelion Dust is a movie that pulls you in and holds you, anchored by strong performances and a recognition that to love a child is to love oneself.
( 1/2 out of four)
Like Dandelion Dust is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including domestic violence and alcohol abuse. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.