Review: Simon Birch

Set in the mid 60s, Ian Michael Smith plays the intelligent pre-teen title character who upsets locals (especially no-nonsense Reverend David Strathairn and mean-spirited Sunday school teacher Jan Hooks) with his constant questioning and unshakable belief that God has a plan for him to be a hero. Given that Simon suffers from a form of Dwarfism, this idea doesn’t go down well with the Reverend and others who see Simon as ‘unfortunate’, not to mention having an irritating disposition. Joseph Mazzello plays his one true friend, who is looking for the father he has never known (Jim Carrey plays the grown-up version of Mazzello and narrates the film). Ashley Judd plays Mazzello’s ‘town hussy’ mother who treats Simon as her own (Simon’s parents are somewhat neglectful, borderline absent), and refuses to give up the identity of Mazzello’s father. Oliver Platt plays Judd’s new suitor, an affable teacher who tries to win over Mazzello. Dana Ivey plays Judd’s humourless mother.

I’ve heard that this 1998 film from writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (who went on to make “Daredevil” for some reason and also wrote “Grumpy Old Men”) is not very faithful to the source novel by John Irving that it is ‘suggested by’ (‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’). Many lovers of the original novel hate this film and probably have every right to. However, with a name change (so that people didn’t mistake it for a ‘true’ adaptation), Irving was said to be nonetheless quite happy with the film on its own merits, and I having not read the book love this film. It’s an unusual, quirky (in a “World According to Garp” kinda way perhaps), sometimes funny film, but also an extremely sad and moving experience. Call it a tearjerker and manipulative, but damn if it isn’t also terribly effective, even if the narration leads you to guess things in advance (which is unfortunate, but for me, not terribly problematic. Others may disagree). If you don’t cry in this film, you’re made of stone because there is at least one absolutely heartbreaking (almost cruel) scene midway into the film that might just rival the death of Bambi’s mum in all-time saddest movie moments.

The title character is the key element of the film, however. Ian Michael Smith, a non-actor (who sadly hasn’t acted since) is excellent in the role, and he himself suffers from Morquio Syndrome, a form of dwarfism, that doesn’t have a limited lifespan. But the thing I love is that Simon’s not all sugary sweetness, he’s not a Disease of the Week character. Quite frankly, he’s rude, somewhat strident, and doesn’t suffer fools in the slightest. He also believes that God has a plan for him, that he will be a hero, and won’t listen to any disagreement on the matter. I mean, it’s nice to have a positive attitude and goals in life, especially when you’re already at a kind of disadvantage. Being physically disabled myself, I get it. But Simon’s just a wee bit insistent about it to the point where you can see why some of the other characters get to the end of their rope with him very quickly. And that’s not a bad thing, anymore saccharine and the film might be too much. He’s a really unique character and I enjoyed the film largely due to Smith and the character of Simon.

Joseph Mazzello has a comparatively unglamorous role of the main character’s best friend, but Mazzello is nonetheless impressive in the role. Ashley Judd doesn’t appear for very long, but is absolutely incandescent, warm, and beautiful as Mazzello’s mother who may have a ‘reputation’, but it is outweighed by her enormous, open heart. You’ll fall in love with her here, and it’s really only some poor career choices subsequently that have prevented this fine, luminous actress from gaining superstardom. Oliver Platt also impresses as perhaps one of the most likeable (and sober) characters he’s ever played.

Some people don’t like tearjerkers, especially when they feel they have been manipulated and they’re aware of the manipulation. I argue that just about every film involves a form of manipulation and it doesn’t matter if I’m aware of it, more that the tears (or whatever the desired emotion is) should be earned. For me, this film earned my tears, for others it may not. It also earned my laughter, in particular a calamitous Church nativity play is a laugh riot and highlight of the film.

This is a sad, fable-like film, but thanks to the title character and performance by Ian Michael Smith, I didn’t feel it overdosed on the sugary stuff. Simon is frankly, a pain in the arse at times. I’m sure that the novel plays more to the religious angle than the film does, but I’m glad this film isn’t just a pro-Christianity thing, it’s more open and inclusive. It’s not necessarily because I’m an atheist (although Simon’s questioning of the relevance of Church fundraisers made me smile), it just means its potential audience is wider without too much preaching, and I do believe this story should be seen by everyone and doesn’t depend on religious matter (though Simon does indeed have a strong faith). It also has an interesting point to make about death, and how a person’s presence or essence (or even scent) gradually fades after they die. Sad but true. It’s a unique and moving experience that I’ll never forget.

A mixture of coming-of-age tale, fable, and a triumph over adversity/impairment, this isn’t for everyone. However I think it’s easily one of the ten best films of 1998 and a fine debut directorial effort by Johnson. Some movies you either go with or you don’t. This is such a movie, and (unlike the similarly tragic but failed “What Dreams May Come” or even the awkward “The Lovely Bones”) I went with it wholeheartedly, whilst many wholeheartedly didn’t. Cynics need not apply.

Rating: B


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