One of the ways that my wife and I handle the waiting process is by reading or listening to books on the subject of adoption and foster-adoption, or by watching documentaries and films on this theme. A couple of evenings ago, we decided to try and find an adoption-themed movie. After perusing some of the posts on the Adoptive Families website, we settled upon a film called Martian Child starring John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Amanda Peet, and Oliver Platt. There are plenty of kid-age-friendly movies out there with foster/adoption themes (and this one pretty much is as well being rated PG), but we were looking for something slightly more from both the perspective of the child and the adoptive parents. (Note: the discussion below will discuss plot points and thus contain spoilers.)
In a nutshell, the story is about a widower and famous science fiction author named David (Cusack) who finds himself wanting to adopt a child out of foster care. He finds himself drawn toward a particular boy named Dennis (Coleman) who is convinced he is from Mars, initially hiding from all earthlings only to observe them from afar. The main story arc that follows chronicles the ups and downs of their bonding relationship.
A brief search of the movie critics out there reveal that they are really rather unkind to this movie. Emotionally manipulative, they say (which I really think is just a childish resentment for actually having one’s heartstrings tugged), or that there is a fair amount of predictability here. Well then. I guess I didn’t go into a movie about foster adoption expecting 1) that I would coldly observe the story unemotionally and 2) that it would break new ground. It’s almost ironic that the critics who seem to hate having warm-blooded emotions end up repeating the same condition as the traumatized and wounded child in this story. (I suppose I should stop psychoanalyzing further.) At least based on the main tired criticisms that I’ve seen, I am not interested in approaching a film on this subject like that.
This movie is not a perfect specimen* (apparently the book gets better reviews in general), but the story is actually very compelling for convincing reason. For me, it is clear that this story is based on some very real experience of somebody who has struggled with the attachment process of having an adopted child. Dennis has evidently been through trauma: the trauma of isolation and especially the trauma of abandonment. I’ve been reading a number of books in the areas of foster/adoption and attachment and one thing that anybody will tell you about children going through trauma at a particular age is that, at these ages, children tend to have a real form of magical thinking and they will form various coping habits based around such thinking.
The literature suggests that you should at first not be afraid to actually be somewhat of an “enabler” for a brief amount of time in these situations. As an example, if the child has developed a habit of hoarding food in their room, give them food to put in their room. In the film, David allows Dennis’ magical realism over Martian origins to remain unquestioned at first. Sure, being a sci-fi author makes him the perfect fatherly candidate for such a child, as supporting characters also point out.
The issue, however, is not the food hoarding itself, nor is it, in the case of the movie, the Martian play-acting. Instead, the core issue is the child’s feeling of safety, of belonging, of being loved, of having permanent parents (or in this case a single parent) who will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever leave the child. Once the child(ren) know this in the depths of their being as experienced over time, these coping behaviors inevitably start vanishing. The child is assured of their next meal, so they hoard less and less; the child feels safe in the presence of their parents so they no longer become frightened when the parents are no longer within eyesight; or as in this movie, it becomes clear that the primary issue is similar such that the magical realism behavior surrounding being a “Martian Child” starts to go away after the father makes a very concerted and convincing declaration that he will never leave Dennis.
The feelings of safety don’t come merely from verbal assurances but also particularly from the actual being-present of the parent(s). This was very clear. David proved his constancy by actually being there, by always showing up, and especially by looking for (and finding) Dennis when he tried to leave earth from the perilous heights of a science museum roof.
The film is also winsomely acted, and the supporting characters and side plots are great. In particular, the developing chemistry between Dennis and David was very moving. It’s also very funny at times. There’s also plenty of undeveloped stuff here as well regarding David’s own journey that I’m sure the book fleshes out more.
For us at this waiting stage of the approval process, we are merely active observers and learners who have gone through training classes, foster-adoption support groups, and read a number of books both from a clinical perspective on the themes of attachment and bonding as well as books from a purely experiential perspective in the form of memoirs. I would be curious to hear from any foster-adoptive parents who have gone through the process to know if the film resounds truthfully (or not) with their own experience—given the usual caveat that ever experience and situation is so very unique.
Here is the official trailer for the film. Just a word of warning, this is one of those trailers that kind of gives away more than just Act I of the story, so if you’ve read this spoiler-filled reflection thus far and don’t particularly care, have at it.
* E.g., how did he get the film for his Polaroid camera when it was explained that he takes pictures with an empty camera? Clearly, Cusack’s character probably buys it for him since the Polaroid film doesn’t start appearing until after the placement in the home. It’s a super minor plot quibble but honestly you forget about it really quick because an adult audience has brains to figure that out.