by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
This morning I watched a movie from my Lifetime backlog, When Andrew Came Home, directed by Artie Mandelberg from a script by Susan Rice and released by Hearst Entertainment to the Lifetime channel in 2000 (and it’s interesting that the most blatantly dated aspect of this movie is that no one in it has a cell phone). I had thought it was about a woman, Gail Carlson (Park Overall -- is that an actress or a pair of pants?), whose son Andrew (played by Evan Laszlo at five and Seth Adkins at 10) was kidnapped by a stranger and exploited sexually. In fact (and though the film is presented as fiction it’s supposedly based on a true story), Andrew’s abductor is his father Ted (Carl Marotte), presented as an attractive and charismatic but also manipulative and self-centered man who’s never forgiven Gail for leaving him, or for taking up with a far duller and more milquetoast replacement, Ed (Jason Beghe).
The film opens at a barbecue with Gail, Ed and their relatives, at which Ted shows up because his court-ordered visitation with Andrew is scheduled to start then, with a woman companion so young one of Gail’s co-workers jokes, “Is that your girlfriend -- or your girlfriend’s daughter?,” and later refers to her as “Blue Jeans Barbie.” Ted takes Andrew for his scheduled visitation -- Gail lets him go in spite of a premonition she has and her disinclination to let Andrew go when he’s coming down with a cold or something -- and never brings him back. Five years later, Gail and Ed -- who in the meantime have married and have a son of their own, two-year-old Ed, Jr. (played by twins Hugo and Oliver Hardinge -- a common casting dodge to keep from breaking the laws against how long a child actor can be worked) -- receive a call from Ted offering to let them have Andrew back, but only if they follow a series of instructions running them ragged going from park bench to phone booth to bus stop like characters in a movie about a kidnapping for ransom.
We never see Ted again and we don’t know what possessed him to dump Andrew back on his mother after all this time, but we soon get an idea as Andrew has almost literally gone feral: during the five years he’s spent with dad and dad’s girlfriend he’s been kept on the run, living mostly in motels, not going to school or seeing doctors, and he’s literally reverted to a pre-verbal state. He can’t read or write and he’s basically impassive -- Rice doesn’t use the A-word but through much of the film she certainly makes Andrew seem autistic -- though he’s also prone to sudden violent outbursts and he’s less responsive to his mother than to anyone else. A social worker tells Gail she thinks the best thing for Andrew would be to send him to a special residential school for a year or so where he could get the kind of custom-tailored help he would need to advance academically and relate normally to other children.
This seemed to me to be the best advice Gail was given all movie, but not surprisingly after having not seen her son for five years she refuses to lose him again and therefore insists on keeping him at home and sending him to regular public school -- at which he’s predictably bullied for his utter inability to play sports (he’s playing outfield in a baseball game and when a fly ball comes his way he just stares at it and doesn’t even try to catch it, and when the team’s captain chews him out and calls him a “girl” Andrew takes out his dick and pees on him, though naturally we don’t see this action and only hear about it later when Andrew, Gail, the other boy and the other boy’s mother are summoned to the principal’s office over the incident) and is unable to do schoolwork at his grade level. So Gail insists on home-schooling him. In a chilling scene we see Andrew climb to the roof of his house with a box containing some objects that he had just before he was kidnapped -- a balsa-wood model plane and a book of matches with which he had lighted a firework the day he was taken -- and he plays with the plane, strikes one of the matches, and accidentally sets his family’s house on fire.
Ed, fearing for the safety of his own son, moves to his mother’s house and takes Ed, Jr. with him; later he returns, but in the meantime Gail has got the idea that she might be better able to reach Andrew in an unfamiliar environment, so she moves herself and Andrew in with her brother Jack (Craig Eldridge), Jack lives on a farm and Andrew immediately takes to farm life, eagerly helping Jack with chores while shunning the academic drills his mom is putting him through because the state (this is happening in Virginia) is going to take Andrew away and put him in a residential school if he doesn’t dramatically improve his academic abilities by the end of the summer.
When Andrew Came Home is a manipulative tear-jerker but it’s also a powerful drama, and among my mixed emotions watching it were concern for the toll on Seth Adkins; one wonders what director Mandelberg put this boy through to get the full-blooded performance he got out of him, and what ongoing effects this is going to have on Adkins’ own grounding in reality. It can’t have been easy on this child to go to the edges of madness he had to visit to play this role at all, let alone as well and utterly convincingly as he does. It’s the sort of movie that makes you admire the skill behind the child star’s performance, but also to wonder whether any entertainment is worth doing this to a child!