The Deep End of the Ocean

(Ulu Grosbard, USA, 1999)


Here is an extraordinary premise, worthy of John Cassavetes: one day, amidst the crush of a school reunion, Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer) loses her three year old son, Ben. As the weeks wear on, kidnapping is assumed, and the child’s death is feared.

Cut to nine years later: in another city where Beth, her husband Pat (Treat Williams) and their other children have relocated, a boy shows up innocently on the doorstep asking to mow the lawn. The alarm sounds within Beth: is this really her long-lost son?

There is a plot enigma at the heart of The Deep End of the Ocean, but its solution arrives quickly and rather painlessly. As directed by Ulu Grosbard (Georgia [1995]) and written by Stephen Schiff (Lolita [1997]), the story functions more as a modern-day fairy tale, one in which normal rules of logic and plausibility are largely suspended.

Both the odd time-frame of the film and its air of unreality allow us to see and study the Cappadoras in a unique way. This is a family that is emotionally evacuated, and made strange to its own members, twice over: firstly when it loses a son, and secondly when it apparently regains him.

Who, really, is this stranger in the house? Beyond the strict narrative enigma of his identity, this young man (played with superb restraint by Ryan Merriman) has a name, a life history and emotional attachments that have virtually nothing to do the Cappadoras. Any ties binding him to this unfamiliar bunch of people – particularly the surly, teenage Vincent (Jonathan Jackson) – are going to have to be forged, not simply assumed. And what about George (John Kapelos), the now abandoned father just a few blocks away?

There are any number of directions in which this material could easily have been taken. It could have been a mystery-thriller about how kidnapping disrupts a family, in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988). It could have been a high-pitch, domestic melodrama. Or, in a more sombre but fashionable vein, it could have used the situation as a pretext for a dour disquisition on the ills of the nuclear family, akin to The Ice Storm (1997).

Grosbard steadily, deliberately defuses all of these possibilities. He refuses to turn the Cappadoras into a handy metaphor for The American Family because he is above all interested in this specific family, and these individuals. Like Cassavetes, Grosbard is committed to exploring the mysteries of what drives people – especially, what tears families and couples apart, and what can possibly draw them back together.

Grosbard is not an obviously flashy director, but he is among the finest and most original craftsmen of contemporary American cinema. His work with actors is always a revelation: watch how he calms Pfeiffer’s usual tendency towards histrionics, or artfully holds back the simmering resentments and frustrations within Williams. And it is no small compliment to say that the child and teen actors in the cast register as strongly and truthfully as the adults.

The Deep End of the Ocean is in many respects a quiet, modest, unsensational film. In order to patiently track the moods and emotions of the characters, it foregoes tabloid thrills and cheap point-making. But its conclusion is deeply felt and richly earned.

MORE Grosbard: Falling In Love

© Adrian Martin May 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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