Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Starring Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn, Jan Hooks, Jim Carrey. (1998, PG, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Sept. 11, 1998
In everyone's life, there is a memorable mother, a luminous beauty who smells good and smiles brilliantly and knows exactly when to tease and when to be sympathetically grave. She is almost always somebody else's mother, but she is so full of warmth and kindness and of such a generous nature she has plenty of mothering to share. So it is with Joe's mother, Rebecca, whose shining eyes and fragrant glow fill in all the empty spaces in Simon Birch's cold and rocky life. Born no bigger than a baby bird, Simon (Smith) wasn't supposed to make it through the night. The fact that he survived against all odds can't overcome his parents' aversion to having such an oddity for a child. To his big, gruff, rock-quarrying father and his reclusive, nervous mother, Simon is too strange and insignificant to warrant much parenting. Instead, he receives attention because of his diminutive size, which the hardier inhabitants of his New England town find freakish and unsettling. His best friend Joe (Mazzello) is himself an oddity because of his mother's scandalous combination of indiscretion (a dalliance resulting in pregnancy) and discretion (her resolute refusal to name the father). The circumstances of their births forge a tensile bond between the two boys and give them both a sense of undiscovered destiny. Simon fervently believes that God shaped him for a specific, heroic purpose. Joe is convinced that the secret to his future lies in learning his father's identity. Their bond and their beliefs are tested after a Little League game, during which Simon, in a totally uncharacteristic display of power, hits a foul ball that strikes and kills Rebecca. Lessons in love, death, acceptance, understanding, faith, friendship, and fate abound in this little movie -- a tall order for any undertaking. Only masterful performances keep this frankly sentimental film from foundering in a sea of syrup. Judd brings Rebecca vividly and memorably to life during her short time onscreen, imbuing her presence with a purity and joy and freedom that permeate the picture and define the relationships between its characters. Mere casual acquaintances, we feel her loss keenly. Mazzello and Smith have incredibly fragile scenes together and they play them earnestly and unerringly, with the off-handed intimacy peculiar to childhood friendship. As Rebecca's suitor, Ben, Platt possesses a rare, unmannered charm most visible in the tiniest, quietest moments of the film. The tragedy in Simon Birch is coupled with insouciant silliness and rosy nostalgia and it unabashedly grasps at our heartstrings. But the sincerity of its players, the level gaze of its camera, and a genuine affection for its story (suggested by John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany) keep this film afloat. Warm and sweet and wholesome, Simon Birch is as sustaining as mother's milk.