Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Starring Jessica Lange, Halle Berry, David Strathairn, Cuba Gooding, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee. (1995, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., March 24, 1995
We've grown so accustomed to the courtroom drama which plays one side as hero and one as villain, it seems sometimes there's no other kind. Losing Isaiah is another kind. This tale of a custody fight between a child's birth mother and the family that adopted him is a clash of two rights, two goods, honorable people with competing yet compellingly valid attachments to one child. As such, it pulls at us in ways those rote Good Guy vs. Bad Guy dramas can't. Naomi Foner's script sharply delineates the contrasts between the two sides: The birth mother is poor, single, black; the adopters are well-off, married, white. And it makes the differences -- especially race -- painful bones of contention on the legal battlefield. Yet it also digs beneath these figures' skins to find shared qualities. The women at odds in the suit are both strung out -- one on crack, one on work -- and the women playing them, Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, show the strain of their lives in their faces. They carve in tense gazes their need for this boy, the redemption he holds. Both are deeply flawed, but they are heroes, too: Berry the junkie who beats her addiction and builds a new life, Lange the social worker who gives a crack baby a home when no one else will. In fact, Foner finds heroes in everyone: in the social worker's husband who patiently supports his wife and this needful child, in the attorneys who fight the case on principle, in a boy who holds onto hope in a bleak housing project. The film is remarkable for its evenhandedness and generosity to its characters. Foner allows each to share his or her feelings, and director Gyllenhaal brings us close enough to them for us to feel the world in their skins, even from three-year-old Isaiah's point of view. Of course, we might not empathize so fully with these figures were it not for the many rich performances, from the edgy work of Lange and Berry to a taut turn by Joie Lee as a bitter friend of Berry's character. The film ends with much unresolved, which in a traditional courtroom drama might seem like loose ends left untied; here, however, it reminds us that life is seldom tidy, work is always left to be done. And the resolve of these good people to do that work swells the heart.