Last year we had two films about killer meteors heading
towards earth, and two animated films looking at the secret world
inside an ant colony. This year we have two similar films exploring
the unique friendship that develops between two twelve year old
outcasts, one suffering from genetic birth defects, the other obsessed
with his father.
Adapted from the novel A Prayer For Owen Meany, written by
John Irving (The World According To Garp, etc), Simon Birch is a
touching tale of a childhood friendship that leaves a lasting
impression. This moving but overly saccharine story also shares many
ideas and themes with the upcoming The Mighty. It's unfortunate that
the decidedly inferior Simon Birch is being released locally before
that far more powerful, inspiring and genuinely moving film.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (best known for writing
the two Grumpy Old Men films) has made numerous changes to Irving's
sprawling novel, but has retained its spirit and flavour. Set in
1964, the film focuses on one crucial year in the life of the
eponymous Simon and his best friend Joe Wenteworth (Joseph Mazzello,
from Jurassic Park, The River Wild, etc).
Pint sized Simon (newcomer Ian Mitchell Smith) was the
smallest birth ever recorded at Gravestown's hospital. A small,
precocious and slightly deformed kid, he is largely neglected by his
apathetic parents and ridiculed by many of the unsympathetic
townsfolk. Simon believes that he is God's instrument on this earth,
but is impatient about waiting to find out his true purpose. His
strong faith leads him to constantly clash with the humourless
reverend Russell (David Strathairn), who lacks the traditional
Christian values of tolerance, compassion and forgiveness.
The illegitimate Joe doesn't know the identity of his father,
and his mother (Ashley Judd) goes to her grave with the secret. Simon
becomes involved in helping Joe search to uncover the identity of his
father, a quest that will change their lives and have devastating
As with The Mighty, the two young stars hold their own against
the more accomplished adult performers. Both Mazzello and Smith
develop a wonderful rapport that enriches the movie, and their
engaging performances provide the film with its solid emotional punch.
Smith delivers a wonderful performance in a demanding role. He is
likely to have a short film career (pardon the pun), because he
suffers from a rare degenerative disease, and there probably aren't a
lot of roles around for someone with his distinctive stature and
physical size. (Smith apparently also auditioned for a very similar
role in The Mighty, but eventually lost out to Macaulay Culkin's
younger brother Keiran.)
As usual, the very talented Mazzello is excellent, bringing
intelligence and a sense of compassion to his role. Jim Carrey
appears briefly as the adult Joe, who narrates this quirky but
engaging tale. The very busy Oliver Platt delivers a nicely
understated but sympathetic performance as Ben, the drama teacher who
becomes a surrogate father to the orphaned Joe.
Best known as a screen writer, Johnson makes his directorial
debut here, but his direction is occasionally a little flaccid. The
film seems overlong, and episodic in nature, and could have been
tightened up in a number of areas. Johnson also seems unsure of his
target audience. The film includes a number of potentially crowd
pleasing elements - there's tragedy, big emotional moments, and lots
of comedy, especially during the staging of the town's "first, full
contact Christmas Pageant." As the film is set in the early '60's,
Johnson also uses the almost obligatory soundtrack to help bring the
era to life.
Simon Birch may well be a moving and heart breaking tale of a
beautiful friendship between two pre-pubescent boys, but somehow it
seems phoney and unnecessarily manipulative when compared to the
superior The Mighty. Unfortunately, local audiences will have to wait
a couple of months before they can compare the two and make up their
own minds about their respective qualities.
Copyright © 2000 Greg King