A crucial but little-known fact is that not all young children are adorable. Some are surly and unsociable; others are unattractive and even unlikable. This is not to say that they are somehow bad, or less deserving of love and attention, but they do exist — something you wouldn’t know from Hollywood, where every child under ten looks like he just walked off the set of a Welch’s Grape Juice commercial. Martian Child, Menno Meyjes’ follow-up to Max (“that weird Hitler movie”), is by and large a formulaic piece about an troubled little orphan boy taken in by a widowed, lonely sci-fi novelist, but part of the reason it works is that the film at least tries to make the Kid something other than a face you’d see on a cereal box.
Let’s face it — at first glance, little Dennis isn’t quite what you’d call “lovable.” Oh, he turns out to be a sweet guy, just wounded and sad, but it’s easy to see why he was for a while deemed unadoptable. Shaggy, kind of goofy-looking, and deathly pale, he spends most of his time inside a cardboard box, insisting that he is a Martian sent to Earth to learn about humanity, and going back home real soon. I wasn’t smitten; actually I was a bit weirded out. But man, I thought — this is one interesting kid.
David (John Cusack), Dennis’s new dad, is an interesting guy himself, not least because his golden retriever is named Somewhere, as in “Somewhere, a dog, barked.” The film is patient with him; he genuinely agonizes over his decision to adopt (he ultimately decides his late wife would have approved), and spends his first days with Dennis tiptoeing around the kid and hoping against hope for the best. Rather than pulling Robin Williams-style hijinks to browbeat Dennis into submission, David goes for gentle inclusion, often winding up fretting outside of the boy’s room with a pained expression on his face. I totally bought it. The “martian child” scenario may be a bit contrived, but the portrayal of Dennis’s burgeoning bond with his adoptive dad is actually believable.
The screenplay also sneaks in a mildly diverting satire of showbiz and the publishing industry, with David being forced to write a sequel to a novel where all of the characters died in a climactic massacre. Walking through the elaborate soundstage housing the production of the film adaptation of said novel — think C-grade interplanetary Lord of the Rings — he demands, “where’s the pathos?” Where indeed. And a bonus: Anjelica Huston later shows up in a cameo as David’s vampiric publisher.
Sadly, Martian Child ultimately bows to the boring parts of the formula: the climax is hideously overwrought, and no prizes for guessing what book David hands in to his publisher in lieu of the aforementioned sequel. But Cusack is always fantastic in stuff like this, cutting the treacle neatly in half, and the film mostly isn’t content with the this genre’s usual trappings. It finds its niche by refusing to be (too) cute.