The 1980s bequeathed a strange formula for popular entertainment. All those sentimental films about the power of imagination, dreams-come-true and the possibility of miracles in everyday life took an odd, almost perverse turn.
The logic seemed to be this: in order to eventually show the magnitude of sublime redemption, it is first necessary to ground a story in the most hideous, miserable, downtrodden realities.
So, suddenly, every family unit in supposedly feel-good movies was torn apart by malaise, abuse or divorce; every gifted, small kid was struck down by massive illness or injury; and communities faced the wholesale demolition of their fragile way of life.
Steven Spielberg is to blame for creating this formula in E.T. (1982), but even he probably did not foresee the grotesque lengths to which it would be taken in films such as Cocoon (1985), Batteries Not Included (1987), Radio Flyer (1992) and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997).
In Funny Bones (1995), director Peter Chelsom showed he was already expert at mixing drab realities with ecstatic highs – while tempering the saccharine tone typical of Spielberg with an eccentric, laconic, very British sense of humour. The Mighty is a much more mainstream, Hollywood proposition, but at least it parlays the misery-meets-miracles formula with great skill, effectiveness and warmth.
The film's title has been nonsensically shortened from that of Rodman Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty – a name that designates the dual identity formed by the union of the big, silent, frightened Max (Elden Henson) and the sassy, brilliant but sickly Kevin (Kieran Culkin). With Max's body and Kevin's mind, this team can walk high and conquer anything, including all the bad, tough dudes in the schoolyard and streets.
Kevin teaches Max to emulate the lost, mythic ideals of King Arthur and his knights – chivalry, honour, honesty, questing. This is the magical dimension which allows Chelsom to cross-fade between tawdry, urban slums and misty forests where fearless warriors are backlit with dappled sunlight. It's corny, predictable, shamelessly manipulative stuff, but nonetheless it works.
Once a dreams-come-true movie has evoked some very ugly, thorny areas of true-life experience, it then expends most of its energy trying to flee the implications of these hot topics. The Mighty is no exception.
This boy's-own fable winds up being essentially about Max's evil father, and the melodramatic crisis that his release from jail catalyses. It is here that Chelsom and screenwriter Charles Leavitt most desperately reach for the handy balm of magic and wishful thinking.
The Mighty is distinguished from run-of-the-mill, contemporary fairy tale fare by the rough charm of its vignettes and details. Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands are superb as Max's gruff but loving grandparents, while Sharon Stone shines as Kevin's seemingly unflappable mother. While these three actors are under-utilised, Gillian Anderson from The X-Files is awarded a perfect cameo in a highly atypical and surprising role.
Chelsom effortlessly wrings tears from moviegoers – in the triumphant moments when his characters overcome all odds, and in the sad moments when the weight of the world asserts its inevitable crunch. For all seekers of cheap emotion, it is a must.
MORE Chelsom: Hear My Song
© Adrian Martin June 1999