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(1998) (Joseph Mazzello, Ian Michael Smith) (PG)

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Drama: Two twelve-year-old best friends try to solve the mysteries in their lives as they grow up in the mid-1960's.
Visiting the grave of his childhood best friend, a middle-aged man, Joe (JIM CARREY), thinks back to the year 1964 when he and his friend Simon were twelve-year-old kids on the peewee baseball team, had a newfound interest in girls, and loved to hang out at the local lake. While sad that his friend has long been dead, he rejoices that if not for him, he wouldn't now have faith in God.

The smallest baby ever born in their town, Simon Birch (IAN MICHAEL SMITH) is still extremely small for his age, and his various physical limitations have given him an unwavering belief that God made him that way due to a special heroic plan in store for him. While Simon deals with his uncaring parents and cruel and callous comments from others in stride, he tries to discover the "master" plan, something that constantly irritates the local minister, Reverend Russell (DAVID STRATHAIRN) and Sunday school teacher, Miss Leavey (JAN HOOKS).

His best friend, Joe Wenteworth (JOSEPH MAZZELLO), has a mission of his own. His young and beautiful single mother, Rebecca (ASHLEY JUDD), has kept his father's identity a secret from him and everyone else in town, and he hopes to find this man some day. To complicate matters, his mother has another new man in her life, Ben Goodrich (OLIVER PLATT), the local drama teacher, who hopes to break Joe's icy demeanor toward him.

A tragic event, however, soon disrupts everyone's lives, and puts a temporary strain on the boys' friendship. Nonetheless, it also strengthens the boys' needs to solve their individual quests, and leads to a series of events that will change their lives forever.

The cast of young performers may draw some, but this theme heavy movie may be too somber (despite otherwise buoyant moments) for others.
For language, emotional thematic elements and an accident scene.
  • JOSEPH MAZZELLO plays a normal twelve-year-old kid who's best friends with a diminutive boy with physical challenges. He has his doubts in God's existence, particularly after having to deal with the sudden death of this mother.
  • IAN MICHAEL SMITH plays the diminutive twelve-year-old who's justified his physical state by fully believing that God made him that way for a reason. Like most kids that age, however, he cusses some and is attracted to girls due to his racing hormones.
  • ASHLEY JUDD plays Joe's mother who cares for him as much as she does Simon. Formerly an unmarried teenage mother, she meets an untimely death early in the story.
  • DAVID STRATHAIRN plays the town's minister who we learn had a sexual liaison many years before the story begins.
  • OLIVER PLATT plays the school's drama teacher and Rebecca's new suitor. A kind and benevolent man, he takes care of both Joe and Simon.
  • JIM CARREY plays a small part as Joe as an adult and serves mainly as the story's mostly unseen narrator.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    Loosely working from John Irving's novel, "A Prayer For Owen Meany," writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (who penned the "Grumpy Old Men" movies) has fashioned an interesting, old fashioned and often touching tale with this picture. Exuding a certain innocent charm often found in movies set in pre-Vietnam America (that war has been excised from the original story), the film also focuses on a range of theme-heavy subjects such as what constitutes religious faith, searching for one's parent and tragically losing another, and justification of physical abnormalities by those challenged with them.

    While that sounds rather heavy for a PG rated film -- and such material often nearly derails the films "feel good" mood and momentum -- the picture manages to pull it off due to a winning cast, decent performances, and an often whimsical approach to its storytelling.

    Told in flashback and occasional voice over by comedic superstar Jim Carrey ("The Truman Show") -- who respectfully downplays the part with no goofy elements -- the story holds our interest due to several elements immediately introduced in the film. First, we see that the title character died in 1964 at the age of twelve and are thus appropriately curious about what happened to him. We're also intrigued by Carrey's character telling us that if not for his friend's actions, he wouldn't now believe in God, and so the film has that hook in us as well.

    Additionally, there's the material dealing with the two friends trying to discover the identity of Joe's father, and the fact that Simon continually states that he knows for a fact that God has specially created him the way he is for an upcoming, but still unknown heroic event. Since we know he dies, we obviously tie those two together and sit back and wait for all of that -- and more -- to unfold.

    Bearing similarities to last year's brilliant "The Sweet Hereafter" -- in more ways than one --, this film deals with children and tragic events involving them. In fact, I was surprised at the amount delivered by this film, and one immediately feels sorry for the character of Joe who experiences so many tragic events in less than a year that it's surprising he didn't grow up to be the Jim Carrey of "Ace Ventura" fame, instead of the new and more subdued, "Truman Show" character.

    In fact, things dramatically change when Joe's mother is accidentally and surprisingly killed (despite our knowing that right from the beginning). While that, and other, elements "spin" the plot around in different directions, they wipe away much of the innocent charm and give the film an entirely different, and decidedly more somber feel.

    Even so, the whole film has something of a fantasy or near fable like quality to it that prevents such events from making the film a depressing event. It also prevents the film from being held to the same logical constraints imposed on a more "normal" drama. Thus, that explains the odd qualities that Simon's parents exhibit, as well as Joe's less than long term devastated reaction to his mother's death.

    When I first heard about this film and its diminutive lead, I assumed that the title character was going to be created by using special effects to "shrink" a young actor down to the appropriate size. Instead, the filmmakers chose Ian Michael Smith -- who reportedly has Morquio's Syndrome that, among other things, leads to a form of dwarfism -- to play the part.

    While Smith's appearance may initially be somewhat unsettling to some viewers, the way in which he plays Simon quickly dissipates any such reaction. Like many others with physical challenges, this character is self-deprecating about this condition and otherwise acts like a normal, hormone- charged preteen.

    That creates some of the film's more humorous moments as words and phrases unexpectedly come from this kid's mouth that you'd never expect from someone his size or in his condition. While some may be somewhat shocked at what he says, it's refreshing to see that the character hasn't been given, nor expects, any preferential treatment. While Smith's performance won't win him any awards in his debut role, and some of his lines feel forced and far too clever for their own good, he exudes a ton of charm that makes up for any of that.

    Joseph Mazzello ("Jurassic Park," "Star Kid"), who's currently stuck in limbo between playing kids and teens, does a decent job although (and not taking into account the film's near fantasy element), his character's reactions aren't always completely realistic, especially concerning some of the more tragic events. Even so, that appears more a fault of the script than his performance.

    The supporting performances are quite good with the radiant Ashley Judd ("Kiss The Girls," "The Locusts") clearly standing out as Joe's loving and caring mother. While her sudden "removal" from the story is shocking -- and eliminates possibly the best character in the story -- the moments when she does appear on screen are wonderful.

    Meanwhile, Oliver Platt ("Bulworth," "Dangerous Beauty") is also good as the surrogate father figure, while David Strathairn ("L.A. Confidential," "The River Wild") is decent as the local minister with a vested interest in the boys.

    While writer/director Mark Steven Johnson's manipulative efforts to toy with our emotions are often too visibly apparent -- especially since we know something's going to lead to Simon's death and the boys' farewells to each other at seemingly uneventful partings carry more resonance than they really should -- for the most part they still mange to work nonetheless.

    Some of the best moments come from Carrey's occasional voice over narration. In particular, a bit about the recently deceased slowly slipping away from the living, such as when an individual's scent eventually starts to fade from everyday items, is particularly striking.

    With a sweet and sweeping (and also occasionally manipulative) score from Oscar nominated composer Mark Shaiman ("The American President"), one can't help but be swept away by this film's happy and touching moments, and only the most hardened of cynics won't find something to like in this picture.

    It's good to see a film featuring a physically challenged child who's confident and gets to be the hero in the end. While that may sound syrupy sweet to some, for the most part it's effectively managed here. Touching on a wide variety of subjects and themes, this pleasant little film is a funny, charming, and often heartfelt experience. We give "Simon Birch" a 7 out of 10.

    While it's questionable how many kids will want to see this film, some of the content may raise parents' eyebrows regarding this one hitting the upper end of the PG rating. 8 "s" words and a few others make up the profanity, and a few, mild sexually related adolescent remarks and behavior also occur.

    A prolonged scene where a bus -- full of small kids -- careens down an embankment and then slowly sinks in a near frozen lake may prove to be too intense for younger viewers. While everyone gets out alive, that's not certain until the very end. That, and the deaths of a boy's parent and best friend may also prove to be unsettling to some kids (and adults).

    Beyond that, most of the other categories are rather void of major objectionable material. Nonetheless, you may want to take a closer look at the content, especially if younger kids want to see this movie.

  • Rebecca, her mother, and their maid drink what looks like wine.
  • We briefly see a boy (swinging above a stage during a pageant and getting motion sickness) throw up, and then see some vomit on Miss Leavey.
  • Simon's Sunday school classmates pick him up and pass him around over their heads, not necessarily to be mean, but because they seem to enjoy doing so, thus demonstrating that they have some of both attitudes.
  • Others, however, are downright mean and disparaging to Simon (although this only occasionally occurs). Not only do his parents seemingly want nothing to do with him or care about his well- being, but others (adults and kids) make fun of Simon's diminutive size and/or appearance.
  • Simon states that he doesn't have any sweaters for the winter since they have to be specially made for him and his father says that they're too expensive. Later, we hear his father tell Joe that Simon is a "little screw up."
  • Some opposing baseball players call Simon a "freakin' hobbit," "stump-ellina," and "pinch-hitting munchkin."
  • Joe's grandmother refers to Simon as "that creature" and her maid calls him "unnatural."
  • Some may see Joe not fully believing in God as having some of both (especially when he says there is no God after his mother's accidental death), and for him and Reverend Russell openly discounting and/or belittling Simon's belief that he's a conduit for God's plan.
  • In one scene, Simon openly confronts Reverend Russell during a sermon about what coffee and donuts have to do with God or that if He made the church's bake sale a priority, they're all in a lot of trouble. Later, Simon refuses to apologize for disrupting the sermon.
  • Miss Leavey tells Simon that his parents don't belong in church and that neither should he.
  • Joe and Simon break into a P.E. teacher's office looking for evidence to prove he's Joe's father. Upset that they don't find anything, Joe throws a baseball and a large trophy through a glass window.
  • While playing baby Jesus in a church Christmas pageant, Simon stares at a girl (playing Mary) and particularly her chest, and he reaches out to touch her there, thus causing the pageant to erupt into chaos.
  • Some may see the film having had Reverend Russell involved in some casual sex years ago as having both.
  • A bus driver swims to safety -- leaving a bunch of young kids on board -- after his bus ends up sinking in a near-frozen lake.
  • Very young kids may be unsettled when some playfully suspenseful music accompanies a scene where Simon and Joe peek inside a paper bag that Ben has left them. Screaming bloody murder upon seeing what's inside, Ben explains that it's a stuffed armadillo.
  • Simon hits a baseball that -- in slow motion and without much sound -- slowly floats through the air toward Rebecca who doesn't see it coming. It hits her in the head and she falls to the ground dead.
  • Joe and Simon sneak through a locker room at night and then hear a growling dog approaching them. A huge dog then confronts them, but after a brief menacing moment, starts licking Simon's face.
  • In a several minute scene, a church bus goes out of control, careens down and crashes through a wooded embankment and finally lands in a lake where it slowly starts to sink (with lots of kids screaming onboard). Reverend Russell is knocked out and the bus driver swims to safety, so Joe and Simon are the only ones left to save the third graders still onboard. As the bus sinks into the swiftly moving current, Joe and Simon do what they can to get the kids off the bus, including Simon having to dive underwater and free one whose foot is stuck. In the end, the bus goes completely under as Joe tries to rescue Simon (who's still inside) and we believe him to have drowned. However, he does manage to get out.
  • We see Simon in the hospital and realize (as do the characters) that he's not going to live (and this may upset many kids).
  • Pistol: Pulled out by the local sheriff and placed on his desk to get Simon and Joe's attention after they broken into, and the broken the windows of, a P.E. teacher's office.
  • Phrases: "Holy sh*t," "Freakin'," "Balls" (testicles), "Boobs," "Screwball," "Bastard" (said as a disparaging remark about being an illegitimate child), "Shut up," "Nuts" (crazy), and "Screw up."
  • Both Simon and Joe give some older men "the finger" for making disparaging remarks about Simon.
  • Dipping into a cold lake, Joe says, "My balls just turned into marbles," and Simon adds, "My balls just turned into BB's" (and in another scene, "prunes" and "raisins").
  • Simon sees how long he can hold his breath underwater.
  • Kids and adults make fun of, or says mean things to and about Simon and his physical condition.
  • None.
  • A mild amount of suspenseful music occurs in a few scenes, as does some in a more playful mode.
  • None.
  • At least 8 "s" words, 2 slang terms for breasts ("boobs"), 2 asses (1 used with "hole"), 2 hells, and 2 uses each of "G-damn" and "God," and 1 use each of "Good Lord," "For Christ's sakes," "Swear To God" and "Jesus" as exclamations.
  • Joe states (in voice over) that his mother got pregnant in high school and chose not to disclose the father's identity. Later, when Rebecca mentions that she met a man on the train, her mother asks if she's pregnant again (since that's what happened the last time -- according to the grandmother).
  • Simon tells Joe, "Your mother has the best breasts of all the mothers. And she smells the best. And she's so sexy..."
  • Simon comments on a girl getting her "boobs" and tells Joe that maybe she'll let them touch them sometime if they paid her.
  • Simon briefly mentions something about "intercourse" when he and Joe comment on possible candidates for Joe's father.
  • While playing baby Jesus in a church Christmas pageant, Simon stares at a girl (playing Mary) and particularly her chest and he reaches out to touch her breasts.
  • When asked why he disrupted the Christmas pageant, Simon tells Reverend Russell, "Sex makes people crazy."
  • Miss Leavey smokes a few times, Simon's father smokes once as does Reverend Russell (a pipe) and some background characters also smoke.
  • Simon's parents essentially want nothing to do with their son and don't care what he does or that he walks home alone late at night, etc...
  • Rebecca's never told Joe the identity of his father, so that mystery lingers over him throughout the movie.
  • Joe must deal with his mother's untimely death, and we later learn that his grandmother also died the following year (after she has a talk with him after Rebecca's death and states that she's old and won't be around forever).
  • Growing up with only one parent and/or wondering about the identity of a biological parent that a child has never known.
  • Dealing with the loss of a parent and/or best friend to untimely, accidental demises.
  • Simon's physical condition, others teasing him or making disparaging comments, and his dealing with both matters.
  • Simon's insistence that he's God's instrument and that he truly was a hero at the story's end.
  • A baseball accidentally hits Rebecca on the head, instantly killing her (no blood).
  • Joe throws a baseball and a large trophy through the glass window of a P.E. teacher's office after getting upset that he didn't find any evidence to prove the man to be his father.
  • A girl hits Joe in the gut after he tries to get her away from Simon, and moments later another boy hits Joe in the gut as well (as more pandemonium breaks out among the other performers in a Christmas pageant).

  • Reviewed August 3, 1998

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